Home Secretary Priti Patel last week formally asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to “review the harm caused by nitrous oxide”, announcing that the unlawful possession of nitrous oxide could be made a crime in England and Wales.
Patel claimed that “protect[ing] the futures of our children and young people” was the primary grounds of the review, citing the Crime Survey for England and Wales’ findings that 20, 8.7% of 16 to 24-year-olds reported using nitrous oxide in the last 12 months in 2019, rendering it the second most used drug by young people.
Currently, nitrous oxide can be sold legally for medical and commercial use, but it remains illegal to sell as a psychoactive drug. Possession is currently legal due to its use in food and drink preparation – rendering criminalisation difficult – and nitrous oxide among the few ‘legal highs’ in the UK.
Nitrous oxide is typically recreationally consumed by filling a balloon with nitrous oxide gas from a whipped cream charger, eliciting a euphoric high. It can be lethal if inhaled directly from the canister, and also carries risks of fainting and asphyxiation. Patel lamented the “long-term health effects such as vitamin B12 deficiency and anaemia” attributed to heavy and prolonged use of nitrous oxide, alongside the 36 deaths associated with the drug in Great Britain from 2001-2016.
In the wake of tragic deaths at clubs in London and Bristol, devastating and unprecedented drug-related death ONS figures for England and Scotland, and the rousing display of solidarity at International Overdose Awareness Day, Patel’s priorities are strikingly at odds with the need for reforms that protect human life.
As a result of these revelations, alongside increased attention toward the way Covid-19 has changed the way people use drugs, issues related to drug policy have attracted mainstream media attention at atypically high levels.
This seems to have alerted Patel to the myriad issues in the archaic Misuse of Drugs Act 1971; Unfortunately, it appears she has latched onto the ‘issues’ that will have at best none, and at worst an actively crippling effect on reducing drug-related harm and rates of drug use – first, her proposed ‘crackdown on middle-class drug users’ at Freshers’ Weeks, and now her crusade against possession of a drug carrying markedly less harm than alcohol, which resulted in 7423 deaths in 2020 alone.
These campaigns may be seen as ‘easy wins’ for the government, presenting to the public a leadership that has control over the “scourge on society” identified by the government in their response to Dame Carol Black’s reviews, and the best interests of children and young people at heart. The deleterious impacts of these initiatives by Patel on the very young people she publicly aspires to ‘protect’, however, are well documented.
Several of the government’s own reports find that ushering more young people into the criminal justice system has adverse and disruptive effects on education, career prospects, and therefore quality of life and risk of recidivism. The criminal justice system is overstretched, and the criminalisation of nitrous oxide may exacerbate this.
Furthermore, the capacity of the criminalisation of drugs to amplify harm is alarming, especially among young people. Young people may feel less inclined to seek help for problematic drug use, fearing repercussions at school or university.
Izzy Watkins, Communications Officer of Students for Sensible Drug Policy UK told Volteface that students might engage with risky behaviours directly as a consequence of fearing legal repercussions or expulsion. These risky behaviours might include taking a large dose of a substance before entering a nightclub, to avoid detection from security.
“Last year while I was a Sabbatical Officer at a Students’ Union, I conducted research into student drug use at our university, and one quote from a participant stood out to me: ‘Students would rather risk their deaths than get caught with drugs’.
The majority of deaths associated with N2O are from improper administration- most often inhaling directly from the canister rather than a balloon. Injury and death can be avoided with education, and it becomes more difficult to provide this education when a substance is illegal.”
Izzy Watkins, Communications Officer of Students for Sensible Drug Policy UK and President of SSDP Surrey.
The facts are simple.
We know that criminalising a drug’s possession does not decrease its use.
We know that the collateral consequences of directing more young people into the criminal justice system will disrupt their potential engagement in education and employment, therefore increasing the chance of recidivism manifold.
We know that the criminalisation of possession of nitrous oxide would limit the access of information and education directing people who use the drug toward safer means of doing so, and may prevent them from seeking help.
The Home Office knows this too, and following disturbing revelations of the continued increase in drug-related deaths, Patel’s focus on nitrous oxide is at best confusing, and at worst a slap in the face to people who use drugs.
“It appears that the Home Secretary has pre-judged the review she has ordered from the ACMD by saying that she intends to ‘take tough action’ on those who use nitrous oxide. I am puzzled as to why Priti Patel is using scarce resources and effort to focus on a drug that is relatively safe when we have record numbers dying as a result of using other drugs.”
Ian Hamilton, associate professor of addiction at the University of York.
The time and money put into this review and, if its recommendations follow Patel’s desired outcome, its enforcement, could save thousands of lives better invested in the establishment of a safe drug consumption room, further access to naloxone, and the expansion of drug checking services.
In prioritising ‘reducing harm’ associated with nitrous oxide by criminalising its possession, Patel shows an outright disregard for the lives of the 5,900 people that died a drug-related death in the UK in 2020.
The piece was written by Issy Ross, Content Officer at Volteface. Tweets @isabellakross
The lead image is credited to this Flickr account: https://www.flickr.com/photos/promocymru/18957230975