We Need To Talk About Drugs

Why drug-hysteria only makes things worse.

Alcohol Drugs Joseph Benett laughing gas Life media nitrous oxide The Daily Mail

A couple of weeks ago a teenage boy from London died after inhaling what was believed to be Nitrous Oxide, also known as laughing gas.  He had suffered from prolonged oxygen deprivation and fallen into a coma. This is not going to be a cheap argument, the kind that turns personal tragedy into opportunity. This is about how the story was told, about portrayal of drugs in the media and why it makes things worse.

If you read some newspapers (Daily Mail I’m looking at you) you may believe that this is part of a growing trend within Broken Britain that really needs to be addressed. You may even believe that the solution is harsher sentencing laws. You’d also believe that ‘Nitrous Oxide is no laughing matter’ (until disgust in the comments section led to the sentence not so subtly disappearing from the article.)

What you wouldn’t see anywhere is context. How dangerous is Nitrous Oxide? How widespread? What went wrong in this case? The Daily Mail doesn’t think these questions are really relevant and apparently it doesn’t think you do either.

It didn’t bother to ask these questions, and two days ago an investigation revealed no traces of Nitrous Oxide were found.

Everybody I talked to about this case, from regular users of laughing gas to medical students, were incredibly sceptical about the damage it could cause. The gas itself is harmless; you can get it in the dentist’s office. When you take it from a balloon you’re deprived of oxygen for a couple of minutes. Worst-case scenario? You pass out, drop the balloon and start breathing again. So none of us were shocked when we found out that it wasn’t nitrous oxide. Too bad The Daily Mail was so locked in drug-danger hysteria that they couldn’t stop to, you know, research.

This story is reminiscent of last year when a man died after Glastonbury and the media were quick to label it as drug related, even when the coroners don’t believe it was the cause. This is in sharp contrast with deaths related to alcohol, despite the fact that the dangers are comparable even by conservative estimates.

Maybe that’s too black and white. The fact of the matter is: most drugs have dangers associated with them. If you hear someone denying that completely then they simply haven’t done their research.  Portrayal of drugs in the media simply doesn’t help matters though and can actually exacerbate the problem by obscuring what the specific dangers are. The result is that you are left with a shouting match between stoners saying they know it is fine “cos they tried it last night” and vigilantes asking why “would it be illegal if it wasn’t dangerous?”

This is not just a problem for those unlucky enough to have the Daily Mail as their main source of news and let it shape their opinion. The culture within Cambridge itself is shockingly skewed by misconceptions and prejudices.

Standing outside Life one night, it came out that a couple of my friends and I had taken some illegal substances. A boy from my college’s drinking society accosted me and began “Man I hate drugs, I fucking hate drugs. Don’t do them it’s so fucking stupid.” At the time he was leaning on me heavily as he was finding it difficult to stand and I’ve seen him pass out or throw up from heavy drinking numerous times since.

Knowing that drugs are dangerous is incredibly important. However it’s more important to know that having Nitrous Oxide straight from the canister is orders of magnitude more dangerous than having it through a balloon first. Just in the same way that we know that downing a bottle of vodka, doesn’t have the same effect as nursing a couple of pints. When you indiscriminately label all drugs as simply ‘dangerous’ you obscure the potential differences in harm. It means that when young people disregard these warnings, they disregard all of them.