Mass Inhalation Of Laughing Gas In London To Protest Crack Down On Legal Highs

Protesters raise balloons filled with laughing gas. Aamna Mohdin/IFLScience

Illegal raves were popping up across post-industrial parts of London and Manchester in the late 1980s. These raves, where numbers sometimes swelled to tens of thousands, could go on for days. It was a hedonistic mix of thumping electronic music with an eclectic group of strangers swinging their hips and jaws.

The Conservative government responded accordingly – they shut it down. 

The notorious 1994 Criminal Justice Act gave police the power to end events where the music was characterized “by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.”

“There’s an interesting parallel between the Conservative’s attempt to crack down on the rave scene over two decades ago and the Psychoactive Substances Bill,” Stephen Reid, the founder and director of Psychedelic Society, tells IFLScience.

Stephen Reid reading a statement at protest. Aamna Mohdin/IFLScience

Reid is the reason why Parliament Square was littered with a sea of colored balloons yesterday. Between 50 to 60 people gathered under the slogan “my mind, my choice” to demonstrate against the Psychoactive Substances Bill. Protesters simultaneously inhaled laughing gas – nitrous oxide – one of the many substances that will be outlawed for recreational use.  

The bill introduces a blanket ban on the production, distribution, sale and supply of “any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect.”

In short, all mind-altering drugs unless explicitly specified will be banned. Alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, and medical products are all currently the only substances exempted from the ban.

“I had some pretty life changing experiences on psychedelics. I completely credit psychedelics with getting over my depression, which lasted over 15 years. I’m happier than I’ve ever been," Nicki Hughes, one of the protesters, tells IFLScience. "People have a right to explore their own bodies. After a certain point, you’re allowed to drink, you’re allowed to smoke, why can’t you explore other options, which we’re generally finding are less harmful."

Another protester, who wished to remain anonymous, says: “If they did try to ban alcohol in this country then there would be some kind of holy riot, the likes of which have never been seen.” 

Stephen Reid handing out balloons at protest. Aamna Mohdin/IFLScience

Possession of a psychoactive substance will not be an offense, but the production and supply of these drugs carries a penalty of up to seven years in jail.

“People should be free to choose to use whatever they want, it’s their body and it’s their right to decide what to put in it, whether that is harmful or not,” Reid says.

Laughing gas has been used recreationally and in medicine for over 200 years. The Home Office estimates that around 400,000 people in England and Wales take it each year. It’s now the second most popular recreational drug in Britain after cannabis and it’s relatively safe for the vast majority of people who try it.

People feel dizzy and euphoric and the high lasts only a few seconds. Some protesters erupted into giggles after inhaling laughing gas from their balloons. But because there is a brief high and not currently on the list for those that will be exempted, laughing gas will fall under banned psychoactive substances. 

Protesters inhaling laughing gas. Aamna Mohdin/IFLScience.

There are, of course, some risks to inhaling laughing gas. Between 2006 and 2012, nine deaths were linked with the drug. The drug is particularly dangerous when users breathe in large amounts of nitrous oxide for an extended period of time. Users can starve their brain of oxygen, suddenly become unconscious and die from brain damage within minutes.

Earlier this week, 18-year-old Ally Calvert died shortly after inhaling laughing gas at a house party. After collapsing in the street, Calvert, who was also drinking, suffered a cardiac arrest and died in a nearby hospital. While headlines were quick to link Calvert’s death to laughing gas, his family have ruled it out as the cause of his death. They say an underlying heart condition was to blame. As the post-mortem has proved to be inconclusive, further toxicology tests are being carried out.

Proponents of the bill point to incidences like this as evidence for the dangers of legal highs. The government says the bill will put an end to the cat-and-mouse game they’ve been playing for the last few decades.

“Just adding new substances to the list of banned drugs classed in A, B or C is futile. When a legal high is banned, a whole new list of stimulants arrives on the internet within a matter of days,” says Jeremy Sare, director for government affairs and communications at the Angelus Foundation.

Sare tells IFLScience that the bill deals with the “floodgates” of “synthetic cannabinoids, psychedelics and nasty compounds” that teenagers are easily able to purchase either online or at a head shop, which are stores that sell drug paraphernalia and legal highs. 

“Where we particularly support the bill is in the way it’ll tackle high street trade. It’s not for the public good to have these dangerous mixes of compounds readily available,” Sare says. 

Stephen Reid blowing up a balloon. Aamna Mohdin/IFLScience. 

He suggests there are four main reasons as to why people take legal highs: legality, availability, potency and price. According to Sare, the main attraction to legal highs for the vast majority of young people is the fact that they’re legal.

“The bill takes legal highs out of the shop window and high street. The ban is not going to affect potency and price much, but it does affect legality and availability. It’s then only the people who really want to take these substances that will seek it. Surveys have shown that between synthetic cannabinoids and cannabis, people will choose to smoke cannabis,” Sare says.

A similar legislation was introduced in Ireland in 2010, but research has shown mixed results on whether the law was effective. While the Irish bill shut down nearly 100 high street head shops selling legal highs, a report by the European Commission found that use of psychoactive substances had increased from 16% in 2011 to 22% in 2014.

So, what exactly qualifies as a psychoactive effect and what provisions will be put in place to put drugs on the exempt list? No one really knows and this is the crux of the issue for those campaigning against the bill.

“This bill is so stupid. It’s illogical, anti-science and based on lies about harm,” Professor David Nutt, a British psychiatrist and neuropsychopharmacologist, says to IFLScience. Nutt was famously dismissed from his government position as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) for claiming that ecstasy and LSD were less dangerous than alcohol.

“It’s outrageously controlling and it has got to be stopped because it’s an assault on any kind of civil liberty.”

Protesters inhaling laughing gas. Aamna Mohdin/IFLScience

While Mike Penning, Minister of State for Policing, Crime, Criminal Justice and Victims was unavailable for an interview, he did forward his statement on the bill to IFLScience.

He says: “The blanket ban will give police and other law enforcement agencies greater powers to tackle the reckless trade in psychoactive substances, instead of having to take a substance-by-substance approach.”

“However, we are clear this new legislation will not stop any legitimate scientific research on such substances.”

Some members of the scientific community aren’t convinced. In a letter to The Times, leading scientists including Barry Everitt, director of research at the University of Cambridge, and Colin Blakemore, former executive director of the UK Medical Research Council, have heavily criticized the bill and described it as “unethical” and “unenforceable.” The signatories, which includes Nutt, warn the bill will be “likely to constitute a real danger to the freedom and well-being of the nation.”

Nutt argues that the current bill could stifle scientific research and will likely have a disastrous effect on brain research.

“The bill also sets a dangerous precedent as it pre-emptively bans a number of substances, regardless of their safety and usefulness. What are they going to do next, ban people having thoughts?” Nutt says

The bill has also been criticized by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). While the advisory council is “supportive of a move to reduce and prevent harms and preventable deaths,” the ACMD warns the bill in its current form “may produce serious unintended consequences.” They list eight major concerns with the legislation in their letter.

The ACMD criticizes “the scope of the bill” and argues that the psychoactivity of a substance cannot be unequivocally proven. They warn that the bill may also have a substantial impact on herbal remedies, and disproportionally criminalize young people as the law could be used to target social suppliers – people who buy drugs for their friends.

Many protesters were keen to point out that the real issue was a lot bigger than just laughing gas. They were frustrated at the direction the British government was going in regards to legislation on drugs. 

Protesters gather under the "my mind my choice" banner. Aamna Mohdin/IFLScience

“At least this bill has started a wider conversation about drug policy,” says Reid.

And he has a point. Though the government is moving to tighten drug laws, public opinion may be swaying in a different direction.

More than 125,000 have recently signed a petition that calls for the legalization of cannabis in the UK. As the petition has passed the 100,000 signature threshold, members of parliament must now debate the issue.

“If people do want to use these substances – and ultimately it’s their choice – then it’s imperative we show them how so they can use it safely and make them fully aware of all the potential negative consequences,” Reid explains. “Drug dealers don’t give you a pamphlet to give you instructions on how to take your amphetamines.”

Families from the Anyone's Child campaign, which supports families of drug abuse victims, have accused the government of scaring the public into supporting criminalization – a move they say could harm and kill even more people. Bereaved families delivered a letter to the Prime Minister calling for the legal regulation of drugs.

Sare says people’s frustration on Britain’s drug policy is understandable, and argues the “law is a blunt instrument that can only do so much.”

“People want to see a much more rational outlook to the whole of the drug policy debate and this [bill] doesn’t give them that. It’s often the same people who say we need to start all over again. Maybe we do.”

The final reading of the bill in the House of Lords took place on July 20th. The bill will next be discussed in the House of Commons. 

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