The Crackdown on Nos Isn’t About Anti-Social Behaviour – It’s About Social Control

Laughing gas is just the start.

by Moya Lothian-McLean

28 March 2023

Nitrous oxide, or ‘laughing gas’, canisters. Robin Utrecht/Reuters

“HIPPY CRACKDOWN,” screamed Monday’s Metro front page. Editors wheeled out the creaking pun in reference to the government’s looming ban on nitrous oxide, now more commonly referred to as ‘nos’ than ‘hippy crack’. The policy made headlines everywhere, as intended, heralding the launch of Rishi Sunak’s ‘Anti-Social Behaviour Action Plan’ which harks back to the dark days of hoodie panics and full-blown ‘punitive populism’. Alongside the further criminalisation of nos, it includes new powers to wield against “nuisance begging”, fast-tracked evictions and the rollout of questionably executed ‘community payback’ initiatives. 

The aim is obvious. With an election in sight, the Tories are attempting to use political cover provided by “arbitrary social control” to shelter from the electoral consequences of 13 years of national decline. Unsurprisingly, this means going against advice that proposes actual, long-term solutions to the problems identified, such as littering from nos canisters and street homelessness. The nos ban alone directly contradicts recent recommendations from a government-commissioned review into the recreational use of laughing gas. An assessment delivered by the independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) concluded that the substance should “not be subjected to control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971”. ‘Non-legitimate’ use of laughing gas – aka outside Lakota nightclub with five of your Criminology course mates – is currently regulated under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. This legislation, said the ACMD, remains “appropriate” in curbing recreational nos consumption; it found use of the drug among 16-24 year olds has actually “reduced significantly” over the past six years. Appropriate, perhaps – but rather less effective in whipping up a furore. 

A ban on nos is the perfect springboard for the wider crackdown on ‘anti-social behaviour’. It’s a drug (tick) primarily used by young people (tick) often in public areas (tick) – and there’s an adjacent litter problem (GIGANTIC MIDDLE ENGLAND TICK). So well primed is nos to be hijacked for punitive ends that it seems almost like it was designed in some foetid Tory strategy bunker. And the debate raging around its prospective prohibition helps obscure some of the more morally repugnant pledges made by Sunak’s plan, which essentially seeks to reframe vulnerable people who dare to exist in public view as the enemy of social norms. 

This positioning is made clear in the introduction of the plan, which defines anti-social behaviour as “a disturbance or disruption to the normal order of things”. Who dictates what is considered normative isn’t touched upon, of course. Instead, boasts the strategy, £160m will be devoted to tackling the likes of people “causing harm and blight while begging” and “anti-social tenants” (meanwhile, no word yet on that no-fault eviction ban that was promised in 2019).

“No one should be criminalised for simply having nowhere to live,” opens a section that details in full how people will be criminalised for simply having nowhere to live. Begging that causes “nuisance [or] distress” (presumably ‘distress’ refers to that experienced by the genteel public and not the person on the street asking for a quid) will be prohibited. Police and local authorities will also be handed new powers to “address” rough sleeping and clear “debris, tents and paraphernalia that can blight an area”, aka the makeshift homes created by people forced into street homelessness. There’s also an exciting new delineation made between those who are considered “genuinely homeless” and people who also are homeless but have annoyed a passer by in some manner, thus rendering them liable for punishment and exclusion from support services. 

Even aspects of the Anti Social Behaviour Action Plan which ostensibly sound less punitive – such as the concept of ‘community payback’, whereby offenders do community work instead of facing jail time – are revealed as penal and incoherent on closer examination. In fact, ‘community payback’ bears closer resemblance to chain gangs than any sort of restorative justice. Emphasis is placed upon the public nature of the punishment, right down to the hi-vis vests that will be worn by those carrying it out.

What’s more, while the plan envisions a system whereby those sentenced to community payback will be working within their local areas, addressing offences committed there (such as cleaning up graffiti they are responsible for), the reality is very different. As enacted under the Tories, work under the policy – which has existed for years – is often unmoored from the community impacted by the initial offence. In 2014, Tracy McMahon observed that it is often carried out far from the actual community the person lives in. In addition, time wastage was a huge issue. “The majority of time is spent waiting around to be collected by the van to be transported to the area of work,” she recalled.

Since then, cuts to every aspect of the criminal justice system, from frontline policing to probation service staff, mean issues like the ones McMahon highlighted will only be exacerbated. As such, we have to ask who exactly is going to be enacting the various pledges that make up the plan. Much of Sunak’s vision relies on the police as enforcers (despite a 35% decrease in police reports received about antisocial behaviour since 2012) at a time when policing in England and Wales is mired in crises both practical and existential in nature. 

Even for pro-police camps, the extra burden of community policing demanded by the plan is practically unworkable from the word go, as neighbourhood officer numbers have been culled by austerity. But for those of us who don’t believe that more policing – or policing at all – is the solution to the issues bundled under the banner of ‘anti-social behaviour’, other concerns arise. As the plan explicitly outlines, it is the most disadvantaged and powerless – the young, the homeless, the already socially alienated – who will be disproportionately penalised by this, the last word in curtain twitching. 

We know the tragic consequences of criminalising these demographics. Just last week, the children’s commissioner released a damning report that found children as young as eight are being strip-searched by police across England and Wales – often without even the meagre mitigations to make the practice less traumatising (impossible) carried out. The same goes for the other groups who sit outside the boundaries the Tories are redrawing around socially acceptable behaviour. Not once in the history of this country has punishment worked to generate a more unified or cohesive society.

But that’s not really the point, is it? As with much of current government policy, it’s less about reality and more about tapping into a rich seam of primal fear, loathing and English conceptions of what is ‘proper’. And whether or not it actually delivers the Tories the polling boost they seek, the rhetoric is already taking root. In a two party system, if the opposition are picking up your points, it doesn’t matter if you lose the battle – you’ve won the war. And with Keir Starmer sounding off about “life ruining” cannabis smoke while promising to outflank the Tories on tackling ‘antisocial behaviour’, the bait has been swallowed. The only question left is: what will they call ASBOs this time round? 

Moya Lothian-McLean is a contributing editor at Novara Media.

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