Last week, the Government announced that it’s going to outlaw “any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect” – except from those it deigns to allow like caffeine, certain medicines and booze. It’s a move which in theory means the end of the road for nitrous balloons, poppers and that stash of legal highs being sold next to the bongs at festival stalls and in your local head shop. While some might celebrate the fact that you’ll no longer be kept awake in your tent by the insistent ‘woosh’ of balloons being filled, a lot of people will probably see it as a dark day for civil liberties and personal choice. Also, given the difficulty of policing this area, the law may not have much practical use at all. To get an expert’s opinion on what the new law will mean, I spoke to Professor David Nutt, the government’s former chief drug advisor. Since his sacking in 2009, Professor Nutt has been campaigning for drugs policy to be based on scientific evidence rather than political whim. He told me why he believes the new law is “pathetic” – an attack on fun by the government’s “miserable sods”:
Laughing gas balloons have become incredibly popular at festivals over the last few years. How dangerous is inhaling nitrous oxide?
“Well, if you take one of the canisters that they use for treating women in childbirth for four or five days then you will certainly end up damaging the vitamin B in your blood, but two balloons every hour for a couple of hours aren’t going to affect anyone. Outlawing nitrous oxide truly is pathetic. Some of the greatest minds in the history of Britain, the people that made British science, used nitrous oxide. Wordsworth and the Romantic poets used nitrous oxide. The guy who popularised the use of nitrous oxide, Humphry Davy, was friends with Wordsworth and Coleridge. Nitrous oxide has been around as a medicine and a way of people understanding a different way of feeling for 200 years. Banning it now is pathetic. They’ll be putting yellow stars on drug takers’ foreheads soon. It is a peculiar attack on being anything other than a member of the Bullingdon Club – but they did drugs, didn’t they? I think this is just about young people enjoying themselves, and they hate that because they’re miserable sods.”
Why do you think the government is bringing this law in?
“What’s going on is that they want to stop people using highs that are sold at head shops. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s been driven by an organisation called the Local Government Association, and these people hate the idea of head shops. They’re supported by Police Exchange, which is a very right wing group. They’re basically an outpost of right wing US Republican thinking on drugs. What they want to do is get rid of head shops because they don’t like the idea that head shops could be doing anything useful. They may also be funded by the drinks industry at arm’s length… I’ve got no proof of that, but it wouldn’t surprise me. They want to get rid of head shops because they don’t like the idea of people doing drugs other than alcohol, for reasons I don’t understand. They concocted this lie that 97 people died last year from legal highs, which is not true. Of those 97 deaths, almost all of those were related to illegal drugs. They’ve concocted and continue to perpetuate this lie. In fact, my view is that there are almost no deaths from legal highs at all. There are millions of people using them, but the most dangerous ones have disappeared. I don’t think there are any really dangerous legal highs out there at present – but this is about politics, it isn’t about saving people’s lives. What will happen is this will drive people onto the internet or underground. No-one will know what they’re getting and there will be no quality control. In head shops, people are largely getting what they wanted. Now it will all be underground or on the internet, and my own personal belief is that harms will rise significantly.”
Will they actually be able to police the sale of poppers and nitrous oxide?
“Well you can buy poppers to disinfect your house. You can buy poppers in the supermarket, and you can buy nitrous oxide to foam up your cream. Are they going to stop people doing that? They haven’t thought this through. It’s all just a silly gesture. They’ve said they won’t prosecute people for possession or for personal use but they will prosecute people trying to sell it. The Act isn’t clear at present, but we think that trying to purchase it on the internet might end up being an offence. I think people will get around that, but they could in theory be prosecuted for buying stuff knowing that it was going to change their brain.”
How will they choose which substances are exempt from the ban?
“The Home Secretary will make her mind up and a drug will be in or out depending on her whim. It doesn’t appear that they’re going to take any notice of what scientists say. She’s going to decide whether a drug is a psychoactive or not. They’re going to exempt tea, coffee, alcohol… and I don’t know what else. Probably antidepressants, antipsychotics and all that sort of stuff. They haven’t defined what a psychoactive substance is. Most medical treatments of the brain are psychoactive. It hasn’t been thought through at all. It may all flounder because it may be impossible to write a law that isn’t so full of holes it disintegrates. On the other hand, they could just write a law which is useless, like in Ireland which encorages deaths because of backstreet use. Deaths in Ireland have gone up since they banned head shops, not gone down.”
Because people don’t know what they’re getting?
“Absolutely, and also because when you’re going to illegal dealers you’re also going to be offered heroin and cocaine. Heroin has been illegal for 50 years and we still have 1,200 deaths from people seeking opiates. It’s not as if banning has ever been shown to work. In fact, we know it doesn’t work because most of the drugs involved in those 97 deaths are banned – but people are still using them. They’re not being sold in head shops, by the way. The deaths are not coming from head shops. The deaths are coming from people getting them illegally. Head shops don’t sell illegal drugs. They’re the good guys. They’re selling drugs which are known to be relatively safe. Attacking head shops is like attacking sex shops because you think they lower the tone of your town.”
Given the difficulty of policing this area, do you think this law will actually have a big impact or is it just political grandstanding?
“I think it will make things a lot worse. Head shops will struggle. They may go back to selling these substances to as ‘bath salts’ or ‘plant food’. Then there will be some test prosecutions. It’s difficult to know. One suspects the law actually may fail if it’s enacted and there are test prosecutions which fail. That will be some time away, and a lot of head shops may just give up because they decide it’s not worth the effort. Trying to offer a safer alternative to alcohol is not really appreciated in this country – which is kind of weird, really. You want to deny people a safer drug than alcohol? It’s a weird, weird world. Science is out the window here. This is all politics.”