Hard News by Russell Brown

On Drugs

Having kicked off the psychedelic revolution in 1954 with The Doors of Perception, a still-entrancing account of a maiden mescalin trip, Aldous Huxley subsequently fell out with Timothy Leary on the matter of who should really get access to this stuff.

Leary wanted to turn on the world; Huxley believed that the use of LSD, mescalin and psilocybin should be restricted to artists and the elite. (Arthur Koestler, on the other hand, had a few trips and went off the whole business.)

Huxley felt that opening the door to everyone would cause more trouble than it was worth; more to the point, it would get the good stuff banned. And banned it was, of course. This did not prevent its production or use, just criminalised it.

Fast forward then, to 2005, and the government's move to ban the sale of "nos" - nitrous oxide - for recreational use, or, rather, to clarify the existing law to the same effect.

It's not as if nos partying is actually new; bohemian types were taking sly hits from cannisters of cream decades ago. Dental students have been taking lunchtime nos breaks even longer. And I may or may not have had the most spectacular hallucinatory experience of my life about 20 years ago in New Plymouth, after encountering two of Taranaki's finest products: magic mushrooms and a large tank of nos liberated from a Think Big project.

That was all very well. But what if they started serving the stuff in bars? Well, they have, in Christchurch - and now "on weekend nights in the city centre, young people can be seen doubled over on the footpath outside nos bars, sucking on $5 gas-filled balloons and giggling as they enjoy a dizzying high."

This not a particularly appealing look (although it's worth noting that a couple of years ago the story concerned young people falling over drunk and fighting in the same streets of the same city) and local community leaders are further distressed by the proliferation into the suburbs of shops specialising in such legal highs as nos and piperazine-based party pills. Just what is it about Christchurch? Can't they sell party pills at dairies like they do in Auckland?

Nos is an interesting case. In occasional doses, it's near as dammit to harmless. It doesn't make people fight or (assuming they're not using while actually driving) kill others on the road. But, as the Erowid.org entry notes (kids, if in doubt, always check Erowid), chronic abuse of it is quite unhealthy. And although it's nowhere near as unpredictable as GHB, there are risks involved in anything that might make you lose consciousness. Every now and then, an American student is found dead with a nos-filled bag over his head. That's a sad way to go.

So although actual problems might be very few, it's understandable that the good burghers of Christchurch would be uneasy about the advent of dial-a-nos delivery services and the invasion of sleepy suburbs by legal-high chain stores. Trouble is, their kids are mad for it, and visibly so.

(Compare to salvia divinorum, a very short-acting but powerful psychedelic, which, after a brief flap four years ago, remains available as a legal niche drug because the kids largely aren't visibly mad for it.)

As ever, we come back to our bingeing culture. Necking 10 or 15 BZP pills will produce extraordinarily unpleasant results; so will an equivalent alcohol overdose. But people do it. It's a silly misuse of resources to have police chase mushroom-hunters around Woodhill State Forest every year - but there'll always be the clown who loads up on shrooms and tries to drive, or has a panic attack. Generations have had fun with uppers - yet it's ironic that they've lately gone mainstream in their most potentially destructive form: inhaled methamphetamine vapour, or, as it's better known, P.

In the end, it's just dumb for the state to heavily criminalise personal behaviour, or to apply a different standard to one intoxicant over another. But it would be so much easier to respect the personal freedom to alter one's consciousness if you knew you weren't going to have to clean up afterwards. Perhaps, in the long run, less prohibition would mean more moderation. The Dutch have arguably pulled it off: we don't seem to be all that close yet.