Why Ban Laughing Gas? The Best Things in Life Are Psychoactive

When I was working as a diner waitress, in Miami, in the 1980s, there were many things I did not fully understand. One of these was grits. People ordered them; I served them – but I had no idea what they were. The other was the desire of the Cuban waiters to help me when I was making enormous ice-cream dishes with names such as Suicide. They would suddenly be solicitous and hang around waiting for the whipped-cream cans. Why? They showed me: out through the back of the sweltering kitchen and in the sticky heat, they would suck out the nitrous oxide from the aerosol. A few seconds of lift in a long, long shift.

Nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, was not something I thought about much, though I had a bit when I gave birth. Entonox. Largely, I think, it shuts you up, as you are too busy sucking it up to swear at your birthing partner. It’s hardly some newfangled drug; Wordsworth used it . It’s a small whoosh of silliness; a breath away for tiny amount of time.

So, it must now be banned . And Theresa May is doing this with an outlawing-cheap-thrills bill, because, after all, this government has nothing better to do. Actually, it’s called the psychoactive substances bill and it intends to ban “any substance ... that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect”. Is she having a laugh? No, she is Theresa May, so she won’t be laughing.

The proposed legislation is, as some lawyers have pointed out, ridiculous. Anything that stimulates or depresses the central nervous system, or affects a person’s “emotional state”, is psychoactive. So, this could be the scent of freesias; it could your special vape; it could be those eye drops that brightened you up. It will not be anti-psychotics or antidepressants or tea or booze or coffee, because all drugs policy is currently based on emotion, not evidence. Labour sacked its drugs advisor David Nutt for his controversial stance that illicit drugs should be classified according to evidence of actual harm.

This new bill is supposedly an attempt to ban legal highs. But it’s worse than that: it is an attempt to ban things that make you feel different. God forbid that this would enable you in any way to think differently. Yes, drugs – legal or illegal – do that sometimes, though no one in the public eye must say this. It’s as if we all signed up to some permanent 12-step programme where ignorance vies with abstinence in some facilitated group hug. Only in such a world could Russell Brand be considered an expert.

The truth is that some people enjoy drugs, and some don’t. Some become addicts; some don’t. Some people like having their mood altered; some don’t. Some begin to disintegrate. Some take to drugs as their final home. Some explore psychotropics and write great detailed blogs about being pinned against a wall for hours. Some dance themselves stupid. Most of us don’t die.

But really I am too old now for anyone, least of all the government, to tell me what I may or may not ingest. What is this nannying? Where are the conservative concerns about liberty? What is this coalition of puritans? None of this is actually about helping addicts or saving lives. The arbitrary distinction between legal and illegal highs is historical and has nothing to do with reducing harm. If it were, booze would be a class A. This bill embodies a panic attack induced by councils complaining about those little canisters of laughing gas left in the street and somepictures of girls in the Daily Mail .

Actual synthetic drugs, manufactured in Asia, that mimick the effects of opiates, cocaine and ecstasy, are sold as bath salts or incense and are available online or around the corner. Last year’s government report on this was a muddle. “What are the motivations for taking legal highs?” it asked, concluding that the reasons are the same as those for taking illicit drugs. So legality is not the issue. There are concerns with “chemsex” and HIV risk in sections of the gay community, but no drug workers are asking for the outlawing of poppers, as this bill does. Why not just ban dance music? Well, they tried. Remember the 1994 Criminal Justice act that gave the police power to remove people from events where the music being played was “wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”? Even writing that now seems insane but, of course, music is mood-altering. Music, drugs, collective consciousness. Ban it!

If that sound too hippyish, it must be all that hippy crack that I did giving birth talking. But, clearly, opposition to this government will come from libertarians and that’s not Labour. The narrative of drugs as pain and addiction dominates. But it’s not the only one: there is joy, there is mind expansion, there are glimpses of other worlds. When I no longer have responsibilities, I fully intend to take all the drugs I like. And they will be psychoactive. Because all the best things in life are.


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