Nos ban: why the government ignored their own experts
In a bid to win votes, the Tories’ latest decision will have hugely detrimental effects, and demonstrates their contempt to expert advice – once again.
As predicted, the government has ignored its own experts and announced that it’s going to criminalise the possession of nos (nitrous oxide). This means that when this policy goes through, you could be arrested for possessing even one canister.
“We will ban nitrous oxide,” the government announced on Twitter two days ago, linking to their Anti-Social Behaviour Action Plan. Their ostentatious motive? “Putting an end to the littering of empty canisters and intimidation in local parks.” Their real motive? To win the next election. It’s pretty desperate stuff. Littering is already illegal – at the moment, it’s classed as a minor infraction and dealt with proportionally with a fine, like, say, not wearing your seatbelt (Rishi Sunak) or attending a party during lockdown (Boris Johnson). Mr Sunak expects to be forgiven for his indiscretions while simultaneously criminalising others for similar offences.
Last month, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) – the scientists and experts who the government engages to advise them on drug policy – ruled against banning nos, stating that a ban would be disproportionate with the level of harm associated with the drug. But the government went ahead anyway.
The move was originally announced by ex-coke user Michael Gove last Sunday who, when quizzed by the BBC on why the government had promptly ignored their own expert advice, said: “The advisory committee offers advice, but ministers ultimately decide.” The following day, he was asked on Sky News if he was being hypocritical given his own history using cocaine. He said: “No. It’s because I’ve learnt that it’s a mistake – worse than a mistake – to regard drug-taking as somehow acceptable.”
So Gove wants his own Class‑A drug use to be dismissed as a simple misunderstanding which he has learnt from. But when the ban comes in, if a teenager is caught in possession of a nos canister, he wants them locked up and landed with a criminal record (which could stop them getting jobs, taking certain uni courses and travelling to places like America and Australia). It’s one rule for him and one rule for the rest of society. How very Tory.
It might sound surprising or even absurd that the government would engage experts only to disregard their opinion, but they do it all the time.
In 2016, the ACMD wrote a report. When the government saw its findings, they were determined to keep it buried. After a three-year freedom of information battle which concluded last week, they won the right to suppress the information. Why did they do it? Because the report recommended decriminalising the possession of drugs. We only know that because of a whistleblower.
“I can tell you that [the 2016 report] recommended that the possession of drugs controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act  be decriminalised,” Professor Alex Stevens, who part-wrote the report, tells THE FACE, “in order to align the Misuse of Drugs Act with the Psychoactive Substances Act , which does not criminalise the possession of the substances it controls unless you’re in prison.”
This was the first time that the ACMD had recommended decriminalisation with no conditions, and the first time the government has made the findings top secret. The Home Office says that they didn’t have to release the findings under freedom of information laws because “the policies discussed in the paper were under consideration”. But could this be a political move?
“It would be politically uncomfortable for the Home Office to once again be shown to be ignoring the advice of the ACMD,” Professor Stevens explains.
Basically, the government commissioned a report, and when the findings weren’t what they wanted, they weren’t happy. What’s playing out here is a serious clash of cultures, motives and aims. These politicians have one intention: to win elections. Experts, on the other hand, are interested in reducing harm associated with drugs.
Why does the government have experts if they don’t take their advice, then?
“The government has to have the ACMD; it’s written into the Misuse of Drugs Act,” Professor Stevens – who in 2019 quit the advisory council because prospective candidates were being vetted for their views on drug policy – says.
“The first part of the act sets up the advisory council on the misuse of drugs. So you can’t get rid of the council – it’s written into the legislation, they’d have to change the law to do so. If you change the law you’d have lots of other questions about how to change the law like, ‘Should we decriminalise drugs when we change the law?’ So they don’t want to change the law and therefore they have to have the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.”
“Obviously the government wants to avoid scrutiny when it comes to the development of our drug laws,” Jay Jackson, Secretariat of the Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform, tells us. “Because tragically, drug policy in the UK is entirely political and in no way based on evidence, humanity and public health. Decriminalisation of personal possession has been proven to be effective in reducing reoffending, saving lives and allowing police to focus on more important issues – that’s why it’s backed by the UN, the World Health Organisation and the National Police Chiefs’ Council.”
At the end of this convoluted pantomime, which is riddled with contradictions, are real people who are struggling with drugs. In a civilised society, these people would be treated with compassion and morality. But that will only happen if drug policy ceases to be a political tool yielded by bad actors with nefarious aims. A huge change in culture is needed in the corrosive corridors of power; the people in charge of this country need to stop bowing to pressure from the right-wing press and start listening to the scientific experts.