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More Than Just a Laughing Matter

Written by: Alan Baker 6th September, 2023

The UK government has announced its intention to reclassify laughing gas, also known as nitrous oxide or NOS, as a Class C drug and make it illegal by the end of this year.

Possession of nitrous oxide will carry a potential prison sentence of up to two years.

Nitrous oxide is a commonly used recreational drug among individuals aged 16 to 24. Prolonged and heavy use of this substance can lead to various health issues, including nerve-related symptoms.

 

While the supply of nitrous oxide for recreational use is currently banned, possession has remained legal. However, the government has now revealed its plans to criminalise possession as part of its strategy to address anti-social behaviour.

Under the proposed changes, those found in unlawful possession of nitrous oxide may face penalties of up to two years in prison or an unlimited fine, with even stricter penalties of up to 14 years for those involved in its supply or production. However, there will be exceptions for legitimate uses of nitrous oxide, such as in the medical and catering industries, where it serves as a painkiller or is used in whipped cream production.

Nitrous oxide, often sold in metal canisters, can cause adverse effects such as headaches, anxiety, paranoia, and even loss of consciousness when consumed excessively. Heavy use can result in mobility issues, tingling sensations, or loss of feeling in the extremities, as well as various nerve-related problems.

 

This decision to criminalise possession goes against the recommendations of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which argued that such a ban would not be proportionate to the harm associated with nitrous oxide. Health experts have also expressed concerns that criminalisation might deter users from seeking medical assistance.

 

During the pandemic, the use of nitrous oxide saw a significant increase. For example, after the Notting Hill Carnival, local authorities estimated that they collected around 13 tonnes of laughing gas canisters.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman emphasised the government’s commitment to a zero-tolerance approach to anti-social behaviour and drug abuse in public spaces. She warned that individuals caught using laughing gas as a drug could face hefty fines or imprisonment.

Crime and Policing Minister Chris Philp stressed the dangers of nitrous oxide abuse and the need for decisive action, including doubling the maximum sentence for supply to 14 years.

 

With this reclassification, laughing gas joins other drugs like diazepam, GHB, and GBL under the Class C categorisation. The reclassification is carried out under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which evaluates drugs based on their perceived harm and potential for misuse.

 

Critics, including some health experts, have voiced concerns about the criminalisation of nitrous oxide possession, emphasising the need for a more health-led approach and better utilisation of existing controls.

While there have been registered deaths involving nitrous oxide in the past, experts have pointed out that the overall risks associated with its use are relatively low compared to other substances. The potential consequences of heavy nitrous oxide use include unconsciousness, suffocation, and depletion of vitamin B12 levels leading to nerve damage.

The move to make nitrous oxide possession illegal has generated mixed reactions, with some advocating for stricter measures, while others argue for a more nuanced approach that considers harm reduction and education.