On Saturday at exactly 3pm, hundreds of people will converge on Parliament Square in London, inhale nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas”, collectively giggle for 30 seconds, and then disperse. The Psychedelic Society insists “this is not a party” but a serious act of political dissent. “We’ll all inhale together in a sea of coloured rubber to send the message: My mind, my choice.”
The “mass inhalation” is in protest against the proposed psychoactive substances bill, which would make possession or supply of any “psychoactive substance” (with the exceptions of nicotine, alcohol and caffeine) punishable by up to seven years in prison. The aim is to crack down on legal highs, which chemists constantly concoct when old favourites are banned. No more “meow meow”, “spice”, “vanilla sky” or other new chemical substances. The catch-all legislation would also remove well-established legal highs such as nitrous oxide.
That’s the idea, anyway. But the bill has been widely lambasted by legal and pharmacological authorities as being irrational and unworkable. Prof David Nutt says the ban would hinder the development of new pharmaceuticals with experimental compounds. The barrister Matthew Scott sums up the bill as “clumsy”, “silly”, and “incomprehensible”.
The Psychedelic Society believes it should be legal to consume any drug, as a human right. “These are our bodies, our minds, and it should be up to us what we do with them.” This applies to magic mushrooms, MDMA and, yes, even heroin.
The society has singled out nitrous oxide – cheap, easy to acquire, and spectacularly camera-friendly – for the action, which is based on historical precedents. Collective cannabis smoke-a-thons, featuring drumming, juggling and all the chilled-out tropes of stoner culture, did succeed in finessing public perception of marijuana. Speakeasy bars similarly proved the futility of prohibition.
Whether the balloon protest will similarly change public opinion remains to be seen. But there are reasons to think it won’t.
There is no single drug that looks less sophisticated than nitrous oxide. Smoking cigarettes will always look cool. Snorting lines carries an air of affluence. But huffing a bright pink balloon, turning cross-eyed, giggling and hyperventilating invariably looks inane. If the aim is to convince conservative prohibitionists that nitrous oxide is a legitimate leisure activity, this will not succeed.
More importantly, the death of an 18-year-old in Abbey Wood, south-east London, on 25 July – believed (though not confirmed) to be from oxygen deprivation due to nitrous inhalation – could make the protest look not only ill-timed but deeply insensitive.
However, the stance of the Psychedelic Society – that the bill is frivolous, and nitrous oxide nowhere near as dangerous as current news reports attest – is defensible. But for different reasons.
To call N2O laughing gas overlooks the true importance of this molecule – as a painkiller. And not just any painkiller, but one whose birth led to the development of anaesthesia, one of the greatest accomplishments of modern medicine. We have Sir Humphry Davy, founder of the Royal Society, to thank for this. His love affair with the gas in 1800 led to the popularisation of the drug and eventually to its use by others for tooth extraction and the development of pain-free surgery. Nitrous oxide has an illustrious history.
All drugs are double-edged swords, and can harm or heal depending how and when they are used. The main mistake of prohibition was to claim that some drugs were good and some bad. All drugs are both.
Has prohibition ever worked? No. Will the war on drugs ever end? No. Will humans always crave intoxicants? Yes. Is the psychoactive substances bill frivolous? Yes.
But is the best way to draw attention to a silly piece of legislation a silly protest that could be seen as equally silly?
Perhaps those who join in the mass inhalation should instead spend their energies devising ways to enjoy nitrous oxide without leaving horrendous amounts of waste behind (neither the balloons nor the steel canisters are easily recycled).
Campaigners might also do better if they worked on ways to establish legal consumption of nitrous purely for pleasure.
Again, there are historical precedents. Is there a legitimate place for inebriation? Yes. It’s called a bar. Alcohol is, in too many ways to count, far more dangerous than nitrous oxide.
What if nitrous oxide could be enjoyed in a regulated, taxed, and socially acceptable place? Like an up-tempo breed of cannabis cafe? It would mark the first occasion that a chemical borrowed from the world of medicine became a legal, communal, publicly available form of stress relief. A historic first.