The debate around nitrous oxide is no laughing matter
Few will have heard of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), but it provides scientific advice to the government in relation to – you guessed it – drugs.
Initially, the previous home secretary Priti Patel asked the ACMD to review the evidence of harm caused by nitrous oxide,
more commonly known as laughing gas. Reporting to the latest home secretary Suella Braverman the ACMD has surprisingly rejected a call for nitrous oxide to be banned.
Both home secretaries have made no secret of their desire to place the drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act, thus restricting access to it. They cite the growing concern of some medics about an increase in incidents where following use of the drug people have developed neurological problems; everything from memory loss through to paralysis.
The home secretary has also raised the broader issue of littering in relation to the drug. Walking along any city centre street and you’re sure to see discarded nitrous oxide cannisters, often referred to as whippets. Added to this is perceived antisocial behaviour by groups of those inhaling the substance.
The ACMD acknowledges these concerns in the report it provided for the home secretary, but argues that outlawing the drug completely would be a disproportionate response. Instead it makes several recommendations, including education.
This makes sense, as many of the harms associated with use of nitrous oxide are due to the way the drug is used rather than the drug being toxic. In comparison to other recreational drugs, nitrous oxide is relatively safe. Problems occur when those using it fill a bag with the gas and then put it over their head, which in some unfortunate cases has led to suffocation.
We know that banning drugs is the least effective approach to the issue. After all, we can’t even keep drugs out of our most secure settings, such as prisons
Nitrous oxide is widely used and is second only to cannabis in its popularity. As it is used by a significant number of young people
who may be naive about its dangers, it makes sense to provide some harm reduction advice.
The other problem with banning nitrous oxide is that it would impact those who use the drug for making whipped cream, as well as those who use it as an anaesthetic. Increasing regulations wouldn’t be welcomed by those groups, as it would add an administrative burden.
All of this highlights a broader point about the way science, evidence and politics interact. It is likely the home secretary will ignore the ACMD advice and go ahead and put into motion tighter regulations regardless.
As we’ve seen with the WhatsApp messages between the former health secretary Matt Hancock and his advisers, this is not an isolated case of ministers ignoring scientific evidence. In this case, Matt Hancock chose to ignore advice from chief medical officer Chris Whitty about care homes and Covid testing which was intended to minimise the spread of the disease at a crucial point in the pandemic.
It seems that the common mantra by ministers of being led by the evidence is a public message that they don’t believe in private (and certainly doesn’t stand up to any sort of scrutiny). Unfortunately, this fits a pattern that we’ve witnessed with this government of saying one thing in public but doing another when it thinks no one is watching.
We know that banning drugs is the least effective approach to the issue. After all, we can’t even keep drugs out of our most secure settings, such as prisons. Likewise, banning a relatively benign drug like nitrous oxide risks losing credibility with young people, meaning that if there is ever a real drug-related risk in the future any guidance or messaging issued is less likely to be heard or acted on.
Ian Hamilton is a senior lecturer in addiction and mental health at the University of York
Want your views to be included in The Independent Daily Edition letters page? Email us by tapping here firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please include your address