Where I live the streets aren’t paved with gold; they glisten with silver. The pavements and gutters shine with metallic bullets of discarded laughing gas canisters. Some were probably dropped by friends, who prefer giggling into coloured balloons to having a pint and a fight.
I’ve spent the summer at festivals, lying in fields and watching people suck inflatables. At weekends, I’ve been surrounded by clubbers buying kids’ party paraphernalia, like crack clowns. At the Notting Hill carnival I laughed to spot Lily Allen on a balcony huffing from a green balloon. For legal reasons I should add: contents unknown.
By rights, I should be delighted by news that laughing gas, or “hippie crack” as it’s called, has slipped through a legal loophole. Attempts to prosecute suppliers of nitrous oxide have failed after the government made a mess of shoe-horning the gas into the Psychoactive Substances Act. Now it’s been left exempt, and sort-of legal, by virtue of being a “medical” product.
Still, I’m not kicking back with a balloon to celebrate. I recently watched a brilliant documentary, on the website vice.com, which revealed how the party market for laughing gas is fuelling the widespread theft of nitrous oxide cylinders from hospitals. I found report after report in local papers of gas stolen from the NHS from Brighton to Kirkcaldy (via Kidderminster, Yorkshire, Crawley and so on). The thought of people being wheeled in for surgery to find their pain relief had been nicked killed my buzz.
I’m hardly a puritan. I go on an annual pilgrimage to Ibiza and live for nights that bleed into mornings. I believe adults should have the freedom to take risks. But while I used to regard taking drugs as an issue of personal freedom, my view has changed. Getting high involves a moral responsibility, and not just to ourselves. Nicking nitrous oxide from hospitals is only another pixel in a drugs picture we’ve deliberately blurred.
Sometimes it’s convenient not to know too much. Stories of turf wars between Mexican drug cartels or talk of corruption in Albania feel conveniently abstract when you’re at a house party being offered a line. Who worries about the impact of drug trafficking when you’re heading to Fabric nightclub on a pill? To hear some people talk, you might think that the only human rights abuses related to drugs are how long it takes to pick up a gram. Now that we’re learning more about how British gangs depend on violence, exploitation and slavery to bring us party narcotics, it’s harder to ignore the suffering behind our cheap thrills.
Last week Tony Saggers, the former head of drugs threat at the National Crime Agency, spoke compellingly about cocaine use by “middle-aged, middle-class people at dinner parties” funding organised crime.
“They will find sweatshops abhorrent, slave labour a brutal, terrifying thing to be happening in their neighbourhood, and news that a 16-year-old has been knifed to death in London will shock them. Their children at university will be protesting similar causes,” he said. “Each time those people snort that line of cocaine, they have just funded far worse.”