Legal high campaigners will meet at Parliament Square in London on Saturday, fill balloons with laughing gas and inhale it simultaneously
Hundreds of people will gather in Parliament Square on Saturday, fill balloons with the substance – also known as laughing gas – and, as Big Ben strikes 3pm, simultaneously inhale.
They will inevitably collapse in fits of giggles, but their protest has a serious target: government plans to ban any mood-altering drugs that are not specifically exempt in a new law.
The psychoactive substances bill, which last week passed its third reading in the House of Lords, was introduced to counter the rise of so-called legal highs – designer drugs that contain chemicals that produce similar effects to illegal equivalents.
But the Psychedelic Society of London, one of the groups behind Saturday’s protest, says the law will cover substances that have been used for decades, including nitrous oxide and amyl nitrate. Moreover, its members say, the protest will highlight growing momentum for legalisation of some drugs as an alternative to blanket prohibition.
Stephen Reid, founder and director of the society, said the issue was one of cognitive liberty. “The position of the society is that actually people should be free to take whatever substances they see fit,” he told the Guardian. “We see it as a personal choice, of liberty. It’s not to say that some drugs don’t carry risks, but there’s a lot of things in society that are risky, for example, extreme sports, and no one’s talking about banning them.
“Nitrous oxide is one of the substances that would be banned under this legislation. If you listen to what the government is saying, it is talking about novel psychoactive substances. But nitrous oxide is not one of those, people have been using it for decades. Yet the government, with this very clumsy legislation, will try to stop people using it.
“It is actually one of the more popular psychoactive substances in the UK, after alcohol and cannabis, and there are a lot of members of the Psychedelic Society that thought this was a real affront to their liberty. They thought the government has really overstepped the mark by doing this.”
Nitrous oxide, described in some media as “hippy crack”, is now the second most popular recreational drug in Britain after cannabis, with more than 400,000 16- to 24-year-olds reporting using it between 2013 and 2014.
The psychoactive substances bill, introduced in the Queen’s speech, would make a criminal offence of supplying nitrous oxide and other psychoactive substances, except named exclusions such as alcohol and coffee. Anyone convicted could face seven years in prison, but possession would not be covered.
It is intended to shut down the trade in legal highs, which has exploded in recent years. But Reid said the law would only drive the sale and supply of the drugs underground.
“In Ireland [where a similar law was introduced in 2010] use of novel psychoactive substances has actually gone up, so there’s no evidence that this is going to make people safer,” he said. Legal-high use in Ireland has increased from 16% in 2011 to 22% in 2014, with use among people aged 16-24 the highest in the EU, according to recent research.
Reid added: “One of the substances, or classes of substances, people have been most worried about are these synthetic cannabinoids. In the Netherlands, where cannabis is legal, there is no market for these things. People are only getting hold of these things because cannabis is illegal.”
More than 1,500 people have signed up to a Facebook page advertising the nitrous oxide protest. They will gather at Parliament Square from 2pm. Shortly before 3pm, they will charge balloons with nitrous oxide. At 3pm, demonstrators will inhale. The drug brings a brief feeling of profound euphoria. Users sometimes black out, bursting into laughter as they come around.
The Psychedelic Society has said its members will hand out leaflets on how to use nitrous oxide safely. But anti-drugs campaigners warn the substance is highly dangerous.
Nine deaths have been linked to nitrous oxide between 2006 and 2012, according to the Office for National Statistics. An 18-year-old man who collapsed and died in south-east London on Sunday is believed to have used it at a party.
On Tuesday, a London council pre-empted the nationwide ban when it announced a ban on using and supplying laughing gas across the borough. From 17 August, anyone caught breaching Lambeth’s new Public Spaces Protection Order could face a fine of up to £1,000.
Local authorities can come up with their own laws to tackle anti-social behaviour under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. Lambeth’s cabinet member for neighbourhoods, Jane Edbrooke, said: “Legal highs are simply not safe – we saw that just days ago with the death of a teenager who had inhaled laughing gas.
“It is our duty to keep our residents safe and this new order should deter people from supplying and using legal highs in the borough. The litter and anti-social behaviour associated with certain legal highs has also blighted areas like Vauxhall and Clapham and now we have the power to do something about it.”
Reid conceded that there was evidence of harm from legal highs. But, he added: “The best solution in this case is to make cannabis and MDMA available through legally regulated outlets, along with the provision of realistic and quality drug education on how to use these substances safely.
“The fact is, most people enjoy using drugs, whether nitrous oxide, coffee or alcohol, and that careful legal regulation is the fairest and safest solution. Rather than follow the failed path of prohibition, the government should be looking to the United States, where cannabis is now entirely legal in four states, with many more soon to follow.”
This article was written by Damien Gayle, for theguardian.com on Thursday 30th July 2015 07.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010