No laughing matter


Good jab, bad jab

Nitrous oxide is known as the laughing gas for its effect when inhaled in certain quantities. So I had to laugh when I read a front-page story last week that the PNP is considering to include it in its list of dangerous substances.

Nitrous oxide is a gas that is used as an inhaled anesthetic, which causes mild hysteria, sometimes laughter, hence it's name. Prolonged inhalation causes death, as with a lot of gases. It is also used as a propellant for food aerosols, and in car racing to burn more fuel per stroke, thanks to its extra oxygen content. It is a useful substance, but as with anything else, it can be abused or misused.

The PNP may be taking its cue from a news report last March that the British government has made possession of nitrous oxide a criminal offence. It actually goes against the recommendations of its Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), which has advised against new laws to ban the substance.

This also goes against the trend nowadays to decriminalize banned substances like marijuana, another recreational drug. During the lower chamber’s dangerous drugs committee discussion on a bill to decriminalize the production, sale, and use of cannabis in the Philippines, the proponent said, “If the government allows harmful substances like alcoholic beverages, cancer-causing cigarettes, diabetes-bringing sugary drinks, why can’t we decriminalize the production and sale of a substance that is less harmful, has many benefits, and can be a source of government revenue?” I applauded his common sense (I never thought I’d be agreeing with him ever). Truly, nitrous oxide is much less harmful than any of those products mentioned, short- or long-term, so why propose a ban?

Worldwide, the trend has been a decriminalization of recreational substances like marijuana, and our ASEAN neighbor, Thailand, has done so recently.  It is now reaping the economic benefits of recreational marijuana use,  not to mention the reduced expense of drug enforcement. Legalizing a substance allows it to be regulated and controlled, whereas banning it drives the sale and consumption underground, where only criminal gangs profit.

Likewise, the ban on marijuana enables a culture of corruption among law-enforcement agencies, like what we’re seeing with the recycling of shabu seized from smugglers. In effect, law enforcers have become lawbreakers with impunity.

The enforcement of laws criminalizing personal drug use and possession causes devastating social harm. In the past administration’s drug campaign, thousands of families suffered the loss of fathers, sons, and brothers who were the main wage earners for their families. Those who were arrested continue to languish in jail in the thousands. Majority are from the lowest socioeconomic class with no access to legal services to defend themselves. Our prisons are severely overcrowded partly due to these drug cases, many of which are because of only personal possession and use of tiny amounts of substances. Now, think about the tons of shabu worth billions of pesos that have been smuggled into the country in the past few years, for which nobody has been thrown in jail yet.

Drug abuse or addiction should be viewed as a public health problem, the same way we view alcoholism or smoking. Chronic users have underlying issues that may usually be psychological and thus begs for resolution through psychosocial therapy. In effect, we are punishing people who have a medical condition. What if we now decide that alcohol or nicotine consumption should be illegal?  We will lose a large sum of taxes collected by the government on these items, for sure. But will we also prevent alcoholism or nicotine addiction? Or drive their production, distribution, sale and use/abuse underground, like what happened with alcohol during the Prohibition Era in the USA in the '30s? We know how that ended, with alcohol being legalized again.

Law enforcement alone is not the answer. The World Health Organization (WHO) in 2016 issued “The public health dimension of the world drug problem: how WHO works to prevent drug misuse, reduce harm, and improve safe access to medicine.” It prescribes a multisectoral response, including public health, law enforcement, education, and social policy with concerns about human rights.

There are so many studies and publications that cite these findings and concerns, yet our law agencies insist that their approach is the right one. They should read the 2009 Georgetown University publication by Randy E. Barnett, “The Harmful Side Effects of Drug Prohibition.”

Personally, I like to imbibe a little wine with my meals on occasion. I’d hate to see the day I can’t have my two ounces of Pinot Grigio or Gewurstraminer in a glass just because some self-inflated lawman has decided it is illegal for me to do so. That will be no laughing matter. And yes, they’re legally purchased and have their tax stamps.