We are all in the gutter – but some of us are counting the nitrous oxide canisters | Joel Golby

MP Rosie Duffield wants to clamp down on laughing gas for health reasons. It’s the litter she should be worried about

It was August, it was 2016, it was just after 2pm, and Alan Sugar was baffled. “Can any one tell me what this [sic] cylinders are laying in the street. I have seen clusters of these before,” he tweeted, alongside a photo of the dusty cleft of a road, the detritus channel between the kerb and the double yellows. Lying there were 10 shiny nitrous-oxide canisters, no doubt discarded by vile, high, giddy youths. This was the clash of the two uncomfortable cultures that coexist in this country – rich old men with peerages who use Twitter as their personal search engine, and teenagers giggling and delightedly littering under the influence of a 25-second head rush – and, arguably, the moment laughing gas went mainstream.

You know what laughing gas is, if you have ever crossed a road in Britain. Because they are there, in clusters: little bullet-shaped, silver canisters that could be used to recharge an industry-standard cream whipper in a coffee shop, or rapidly inflate a tyre on a bicycle, but are most often used to inflate a balloon, sell that balloon outside smoking areas at two for a fiver, and then see that balloon get inhaled for a brief, giddy, head-spinning high.

You could get more or less the same effect if you held your breath for 20 seconds and turned around six times in a circle, but the balloon thing is easier and slightly more fun. It’s a semi-legal high that is only ever in the news if a footballer is caught doing it or if an MP is trying to ban it. It’s a bit passé, even for footballers now, but Labour’s Rosie Duffield is busy trying to tighten regulation on the sale of the stuff. In the middle of a pandemic, yeah? In a moment of reigning government calamity that is surely a golden opportunity to clutch a few points in the polls, yeah? This is what you’re focusing your energy on?

I should be less cynical. In a debate in the Commons on Tuesday, Duffield – who says she consulted police, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, local councillors and community activists – raised concerns that recreational use of the drug had spiked during lockdown, and that sales of the gas (which is legal if you’re whipping cream with it, but as soon as your intention changes to breathing it in very quickly, suddenly gets covered by the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016) were too lax. “If I purchased some canisters for the purpose of indulging in a quick lockdown high, I wouldn’t have broken the law,” Duffield said, in a way that makes me so hungry for a “quick lockdown high” that my whole body could scream for it. “It is clear to me, and many of the experts that I’ve spoken to, that the recreational use has become much more prevalent during lockdown.” For the record, drugs charity Release says it hadn’t noticed a particular spike in laughing gas during lockdown.

But on the other hand … come on. You know: come on. Come on. There is risk associated with laughing gas – if you back-to-back a whole pack of balloons you might get clatteringly dizzy and fall on something, and there have been documented cases of users falling unconscious and dying because of a lack of oxygen; and heavy, regular use can lead to serious nerve damage. But broadly, it’s one of the safest psychoactive substances. And, more importantly, it’s astoundingly popular among young people.

A Home Office survey from last year found laughing gas was the second-most popular drug among 16- to 24-year-olds behind good old-fashioned, stoned-on-the-sofa cannabis. Further regulation is self-sabotaging: it criminalises young people out for a giggle and, very crucially, makes it much more appealing to do. If you wanted young people to stop doing whippits (as they’re also known), stage a tabloid scandal where someone decidedly uncool gets caught doing them. Surely one of Take That can take the hit.

In a way, I’m glad we don’t legalise drugs in this country. Because – and you’ll have to excuse me for making one of history’s tiredest arguments – look what we did with that incredibly dangerous substance alcohol: we had a choice between strict regulation and building a towering culture entirely around it, and chose the latter. Could you imagine just how unbearable drugs culture would be in this country if it was legalised? Second-wedding hen-do mums with “Live, Laugh, Love” etched across a TK Maxx bong; hard lads in pub gardens arcing bottles of poppers in the air every time Harry Kane scores a penalty; entire counties ready to fight each other – the way Devon and Cornwall argue about the order the jam is supposed to go on a scone – over whether a bump of cocaine is better than a line. This is why we can’t legalise drugs in this country. It’s nothing to do with moral panic, and everything to do with cultural decline.

The BBC’s report on Duffield’s call is fairly damning – “It is unlikely that Ms Duffield’s debate will lead to a change in the law” – but this argument comes up once a year like clockwork, so, ahead of Laughing Gas Panic 2021, let’s be realistic: this is more an issue of littering than anything else. If you’re that worried about young people laughingly leaving detritus around, call for investment in communities and parks. In the case of nitrous oxide, 10 binmen are worth a thousand drug laws.


Joel Golby

The GuardianTramp

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