Following the trail of 12,000 laughing gas canisters found at Notting Hill Carnival last month, the government has found a perfect scapegoat to justify increasingly illiberal drug policies with laughing gas (Nitrous Oxide) set to become a Class C substance by the end of this year.
Britain’s drug strategy, which aims to “Break drug supply chains,” “Deliver a world-class treatment and recovery system,” and “Achieve a generational shift in demand for drugs,” is fundamentally flawed. It fails to address the root causes of drug misuse and the recent move to criminalise nitrous oxide possession underscores deep-rooted problems in Britain’s drug policy approach.
Nitrous oxide trails only cannabis as the commonly used recreational drug by 16 to 24-year-olds. Nitrous Oxide is currently listed as a psychoactive substance, meaning while possession is not illegal, its supply can land you a maximum of seven years in the sack. Once it becomes a Class C, possession will be punishable by a maximum of two years in prison with supplying netting a maximum sentence of 14 years.
Preventing the supply of drugs by changing laws is like trying to mend a broken dam with a Post-it note. The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that reducing drug supply through seizures has minimal long-term effect on the actual use or demand for drugs. Arresting suppliers often inadvertently promotes competition, driving both innovation and violence in the drug trade. Additionally, when one drug supply is restricted, there’s an inevitable shift in the demand for other drugs, which further complicates the issue.
Consider the recent statistics: About 1 in 11 adults aged 16 to 59 years reported drug use in the year ending June 2022, with no change since March 2020. Among them, almost half obtained drugs through friends or colleagues, indicating a social and casual nature of consumption, rather than a transactional one. The mere existence of such vast networks of informal supply channels implies that traditional crackdowns are unlikely to be effective.
It is also clear that the government’s crackdown on drug consumption is inherently regressive. The socio-economic lens also provides an essential insight into drug consumption in the UK. Those earning less than £10,400 per year were more likely to use drugs in the past year than their higher-earning counterparts. This correlation suggests that drug consumption is influenced by socio-economic factors, including poverty and access to opportunities, not solely personal choice or moral failings.
By contrast, let’s observe Portugal’s experiment with drug decriminalisation in 2001. Shifting from punitive measures to a health-focused approach has produced impressive results. In 2001, over 40 per cent of the sentenced Portuguese prison population were held for drug offences. Today, Portuguese drug deaths rank lower than the rest of Europe, and a 2015 study found that the nation’s social costs of drug use plummeted by 18 per cent by 2010. Such reductions in drug-related societal costs are the result of fewer criminal proceedings for drug offences and the diminished income loss from imprisoning individuals for these offences.
Portugal’s drug consumption levels also remain below the EU average, meaning that just because heroin becomes decriminalised, it’s unlikely that suburban families become addicts overnight.
It is also hard to ignore the understaffing issues that plague UK prisons like Wandsworth – the prison responsible for the escape of terror suspect, Daniel Abed Khalife. Overcrowded with inmates and critically understaffed, such prisons cannot keep criminals out of society – let alone function as rehabilitation centres. With about a third of staff on sick leave at any given time, it’s clear that simply throwing more individuals into this system, especially for harmless consumption-based drug offences, will not solve the drug crisis.
Comparing drug-related deaths to alcohol-related deaths provides a telling contrast. In 2021, there were 7,556 alcohol-specific deaths in England, while over 4,000 people in the UK died from a preventable drug overdose for all drugs! With such numbers, it’s perplexing that substances like nitrous oxide are being targeted with such zeal.
In any free market, there is almost always a socially optimal allocation of resources – even crime. Supply will always try to meet demand fighting inescapable market forces only serves as a resource drain while also increasing the rewards gained from drug trafficking. Thus, it is clear that the government’s drug strategy is outdated and needs to change. This must be done by a shift in drug policy and attitudes towards a Portugal-like system, or, even further, a system whereby drugs can be legally supplied and consumed – like cigarettes or alcohol – but are subject to externality taxes that reflect the social costs of their consumption.
This would be a different world. Addicts would get the support they need and suppliers would become law-abiding, open businesses that contribute to the economy. With the risk of drug and gang raids at zero, drug violence would fall and overdose deaths from impure substances would likely drop because of market regulation. These potential benefits make the government’s decision to double down on the failed war on drugs all the more lamentable.