The justice secretary, Robert Buckland, has hit back at the former drugs adviser David Nutt for labelling the government’s criminalisation of nitrous oxide hysterical.
Buckland said nitrous, also known as laughing gas or hippy crack, was a dangerous drug, and giving young people mixed messages could put lives at risk.
On Wednesday Nutt, a former adviser to the Home Office and more recently a vocal critic of government drugs policy, said nitrous was far less toxic or addictive than wine or beer.
“The trouble with these contradictory messages is that people, particularly young people, get the wrong signal from those in authority,” Buckland told LBC on Thursday. “Giving the wrong signal about dangerous drugs could lead to people’s lives being put at risk.”
He added: “We need to be absolutely consistent in our messaging. Our message is it is an illegal dangerous drug … There is a very good reason why that type of drug is prohibited and banned.”
Nitrous oxide was banned alongside other co-called legal highs in 2016, but Nutt said the substance could be “fun without the risks of alcohol”.
“The effect is over in a few minutes. You’re perfectly safe, you can go back home, you can drive, you are much more in control of it, you don’t have a hangover,” he said.
He said studies consistently showed that alcohol harm outstripped that of heroin and crack cocaine, tobacco, cannabis and ecstasy in the UK, Europe and Australia.
Launching a new edition of his book Drugs Without the Hot Air, Nutt said nothing had been done to mitigate the effects of alcohol on people in the last decade. He said people would only get health benefits from alcohol if they limited themselves to half a unit – a third of a glass of wine or half a pint of beer – a day.
“What I suggest you do is you order a standard pint or a standard wine glass and three straws and share it with your friends,” he said. “We see a continual attempt to undermine the concept of alcohol harm by saying it has health benefits.”
Alcohol is the leading cause of death in men under the age of 24, responsible for 26% of their early deaths.
Nutt was sacked as chair of the advisory committee on the misuse of drugs in October 2009 for stating that ecstasy and LSD were less dangerous than alcohol. He is head of the Centre for Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London.