In 1882 philosopher and father of American psychology William James recorded observations of the effects of nitrous oxide gas intoxication – one of four substances including chloral hydrate in 1870, amyl nitrite in 1875, and peyote in 1896, which he experimented with as part of his pilgrimage into religious ecstasies.
James described the effects as akin to the “maudlin” stage of alcoholic drunkenness, a “subjective rapture of which probably constitutes a chief part of the temptation to the vice,” before noting that the effects of nitrous oxide were this but “a thousand-fold enhanced.” Most remarkably, James credits the substance for having “seized” his mind “by… logical forceps” such that he could comprehend Hegelian dialetics which had hitherto rendered themselves incomprehensible.
Nitrous oxide, more commonly known as ‘laughing gas,’ or in its modern iterations, ‘balloons,’ ‘hippy crack’ or ‘NOS,’ has been a recurrent psychoactive since at least the late 1700s. As reported by Vice journalist Gavin Butler, laughing gas parties were among the most Dionysian pleasures of aristocrats in the 1800s following its discovery by the chemist Humphry Davy. Davy subsequently hosted guests including the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge to sample this colourless gas.
Over 200 years on and laughing gas today has fewer glamorous intellectual associations. It is, according to a recent Home Office survey, predominantly the business of bored 16-24 year olds huffing before music festivals or in local parks. What these young people may have in common with more historic figures is both a curiosity, and a realisation that their consumption of balloons may seem, as William James wrote, equally “silly to onlookers” now as it did then.
At what point dabbling in psychoactives or visiting opium dens transitioned from recreational delights to a source of social anxiety is perhaps a question for anthropology, but it is now inevitable that even the most innocuous psychoactive drugs will be the subject of moral panic. This week, the member of parliament for Canterbury, Rosie Duffield, made her adjournment debate debut by calling for a tightening of laws to restrict access to laughing gas by re-classifying nitrous oxide. Duffield claimed, without evidence, that its use had become “much more prevalent” during the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the Labour MP, “it is far too easy to be able to purchase nitrous oxide for use as a recreational drug and every day, up and down the country, thousands of young people are doing just that.”
Notwithstanding the broad range of uses for laughing gas, including controlling pain relief during childbirth, dental operations, and whipping cream, there are concerns to be raised over its use. Nitrous oxide is discharged into a balloon from a canister and then inhaled, causing a momentary dizzying sensation, and “diffusion hypoxia” when room air is inhaled at the conclusion of huffing, which is the result of both natural psychoactive properties, and a temporary deprivation of oxygen to the brain.
Written on paper, it sounds scary. According to FRANK, the drugs advisory service, the stated risks of inhaling nitrous oxide include falling unconscious or suffocating to death due to lack of oxygen. Heavy, regular use can cause vitamin B12 deficiency, which can create serious nerve damage, impair the production of white blood cells, and lead to a form of anaemia. Frontline NHS nurses also warned last year that young people are unaware of its risks. Fatalities, though, rare and usually due to mis- or overuse, have accounted for 30 deaths between 2002 and 2017.
Equally, the environmental impact of littering discarded NOS cannisters should not be understated as, since they may not necessarily be empty, they cannot always be safely recycled. However, it is not difficult to see how Labour could articulate this as part of an anti-littering campaign which identifies the impacts of austerity on local council services, often leaving them bereft of the resources to collect rubbish, or even propose a strategic review of litter bin provision.
Despite the stated health risks, the same BBC report which covered Duffield’s Campaign Against Balloons included comment from Niamh Eastwood of the drug charity Release which countered claims that lockdown has seen an increase in reported use and argued that moves to tighten the law would “end up criminalising children and young people.” Eastwood continued to argue that “although there are risks associated with heavy use, laughing gas is one of the safest psychoactive substances.” Certainly, deaths associated with nitrous oxide are small in scale when compared to alcohol or tobacco consumption. Further, Eastwood argues, restricting access could drive young people to “move onto much more harmful substances” with more lethal consequences.
On Twitter, Rosie Duffield was at great pains to make clear that she didn’t speak of “criminalising” the substance. But this doesn’t stack up. Her statement in Commons included the line “if I purchased some canisters for the purpose of indulging a quick lockdown high, I wouldn’t have broken the law.” It is difficult to make sense of that line without coming to the conclusion that the MP was advocating for such a law to be put in place.
The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 introduced by Michael Bates and then Home Secretary Theresa May led to a disproportionate criminalisation of NOS sellers, with these dealers representing 71% of those detained under the Act between the 26th May and 30th November 2016. Punitive measures to restrict the recreative sale of nitrous oxide already exist – so what, exactly, is Duffield proposing? What, to the limited parliamentary imagination, would control access to nitrous oxide beyond criminalising its use? Forcing higher prices, perhaps, but this carries the same risk of simply driving young people to harder substances.
It may be a better use of time to ask what this focus on laughing gas is really about, considering the low rate of deaths and evidence that punishment-led models of drug control are ineffective and socially damaging. Duffield claimed that she brought the nitrous oxide issue to the House following correspondence with constituents, and I am certainly of the view that members of parliament should pursue agendas which are based on local consultation. It was, after all, frustrating that Corbyn’s practice of presenting local-level issues as subjects of national interest, such as in his use of Prime Ministers Questions to talk about the crisis in bus services, was routinely sneered at.
But, frankly, I also believe in the language of priorities – and considering the impending recession and fallout from the government’s mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic, this feels at best inopportune. As journalist Rachel Connolly writes on Twitter: “I feel this MP is just doing the laughing gas thing for the sake of brand building, which is even worse than if she earnestly believed it was a ‘scourge’… the (in my opinion unsubstantiated) idea that Labour was ‘too studenty’ will inspire lots of MPs to try and build their national profile with these types of, frankly very odd, ‘anti young people’ culture war topics.”
Connolly’s thesis is quite convincing, since the language of ‘grown-up responsibility’ has come to define much of Starmer’s early leadership. Naturally, it requires disparaging the young – as well as anything which might be considered unusual or radical or fun. As I wrote in a previous column, the most authoritarian traditions of New Labour focused on escalating moral panics around young people and children to present them as existential threats to national health and morale. New Labour were certainly guilty of ignoring expertise and evidence-led advice on drugs policy in favour of an anti-drugs agenda shaped by the tabloid press. The government even went so far as to fire Professor David Nutt in 2009 after he rightly asserted that LSD and ecstasy were less dangerous than alcohol.
As Labour rebrands post-Corbyn it will be concerned with stressing the values of family, security and national virtue, and certainly teenagers huffing from balloons appears to be the antithesis of all this. Stanley Cohen writes in Folk Devils and Moral Panics that “drug problems” and, specifically, the figure of the “drug fiend” provide “visible reminders of what we should not be” as a society. Psychoactive drugs have certainly persisted as a source of moral panic – the 2014 Daily Mail headline ‘How Hippy Craze Killed Our Gifted Son’ was an example of the narrative: the virtuous, respectable, promising youth who have their lives hijacked by cruel temptations.
But if we’re going to redesign Labour politics through an appeal to family, this can more positively address the missed opportunities of Corbynism – which had, until the 2019 manifesto, been scant by way of drug policy, completely omitting it in the 2017 manifesto. Instead of engaging in tabloid politics, the party should be reaching out to those families who have been impacted by the drug-related deaths of their children.
Jane Slater, campaign manager of Anyone’s Child: Families for Safer Drug Control, spoke to me about what a different and more genuinely family-focused approach might look like:
“We are a network of families who have felt first-hand the tragic failure of our current drug policy – many of us have lost loved ones to overdose. Despite this, we recognise that whether we like it or not, we cannot stop our young people from taking drugs. Cracking down, or toughening the laws around laughing gas simply will not work, in fact it will drive the market further underground making it even more dangerous. Rather we are calling for governments to be honest and base drug policy on reality, not fear – and that means regulating drugs to reduce the risks they pose.”
July 21st was International Drug Users Remembrance Day – but no mention of it was made by any official Labour source. When the party ignores those who have actually suffered from the impacts of drug abuse it is difficult to believe that its campaign over balloons is motivated by genuine concern for young people and their families. Instead, it seems to be a brand-building exercise to make Labour appear the party of responsible management.
Once again, the rising stars of Starmer’s Labour are lacking in the initiative and creative innovation to design policies and strategies to produce long-lasting, evidence-based change, must less ones which are rooted in consultation with affected communities and families. Perhaps Labour MPs could do with opening their minds to some new form of consciousness; or, at least, one which is capable of looking beyond tabloid headlines.