Rishi Sunak

The evidence shows that banning drugs does not make them less available or less dangerous. Deaths from drug overdoses rise year on year. Over 125 people a week died from drug poisoning in the UK in 2021. Therefore, the move by the government to ban nitrous oxide (NOS) is at odds with their stated intentions to reduce harm. It is yet another example of the Conservatives’ lazy, headline grabbing politics.

The independent, scientific body which which advises the government, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), has stated: “Current evidence suggests that the health and social harms of nitrous oxide are not commensurate with control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.” Their study showed that the types of harms caused by NOS have not changed since 2015. Deaths and demand for treatment for problematic drug use is low compared to other drugs (including alcohol), and this ban is likely to push people to purchase larger volume canisters which may be linked to higher use and therefore greater subsequent harms in some people. NOS use has also fallen in recent years (from 8.7% to 3.9% for adults aged 16 to 24 years).

Not only will the ban increase health harms, including NOS within the Misuse of Drugs Act gives more powers to the police. This, we know, will inevitably lead to many more people (particularly young people) being criminalised, shackled with life-limiting criminal records.

Disappointingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly given their leadership’s position on drug policy, Labour are providing no opposition to this. They are ignoring the evidence, following the harmful ‘tough on drugs’ line for political posturing and are willing to let people suffer the consequences.

By contrast, the Green Party wants to get drugs under control, not by pretending we can make them go away by banning them but by licensing and regulating them. By looking at the actual harms and benefits of each drug and legislating accordingly.

We understand that tackling any type of drug use requires careful consideration of not just the drug, but the broader circumstances in which drug use takes place. No one intervention will succeed alone. The police, trading standards and Local Authorities already have the power to tackle problematic NOS use. The government wants to appear to be ‘tackling crime’ by taking the measure to ban NOS – but all evidence suggests the ban is disproportionate and will do more harm.

There are many legitimate medical, commercial and industrial uses of NOS. Before considering any legislative change, the government should undertake a consultation with academics and industry to ensure that disproportionate burdens are not placed on legitimate uses.

The Green Party would ensure that relevant health bodies have the information necessary to both educate and treat people using NOS. The government could be focusing on education, labelling and responsible distribution. We also want to make people aware of the environmental harms of NOS – which is 300 times more harmful than carbon dioxide – for people to consider before using it.

The Green Party is the only political party that has a policy that takes drugs seriously. We have looked at the evidence and recognise that the Misuse of Drugs Act fails on every possible measure. It does not reduce the supply of drugs, it does not reduce the number of people dying from drug poisoning. It does not make our streets or our children safer.

There is evidence that a fundamental change in our approach to controlling drugs is needed. It would save lives, cut crime and save money. Banning NOS is taking us in completely the wrong direction.

Zoë Garbett is the Green Party’s candidate for Mayor of London

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Image credit:  Number 10 – Creative Commons