Nitrous oxide: what to know about potential changes in the law

Predictably, the Tories are going to try and ban laughing gas. But who is it really benefiting?

According to a recent report in The Times, the supply of nitrous oxide (nos) canisters is set to be banned, in part, by the government. If this goes ahead, only people with a legitimate reason” will be able to obtain it legally – namely chefs and those working in dentistry and medical settings.

This predictable piece of political theatre tells you more about the current state of the Conservative Party than it does about the dangers of nitrous oxide. They are doing very badly in the polls. If there was a general election tomorrow, it would be game over. So they need to pull something out of the hat to score a few points with their older voters, who seem very worried about young people taking the so-called hippy crack” while they sit around kitchen tables funnelling booze (a legal drug with a much higher risk profile) down their throats until they get cirrhosis of the liver. It’s kind of like when a couple falls out of love, so one suggests having a threesome in a misguided attempt to rekindle some excitement. It’s never going to work.

Traditionally, drug laws are a relatively straightforward way to show to the public that the government is taking crime seriously,” Harry Sumnall, a Professor in Substance Use at the Public Health Institute, told THE FACE. If the government thinks that they’re being perceived as weak in a particular policy area, such as crime, then enacting new controls on drugs is a good way to show the public that they’re taking their job seriously. I think nitrous oxide fits into this.”

There have been reports about legitimate health concerns recently raised in relation to nos, mainly linked to changes in the way it’s sold (now in huge 640g canisters rather than the traditional 8g ones). There are instances of neurological damage and anecdotal accounts of an increase in hospital admissions related to the drug – but these are very rare. And should the drug become illegal to possess, we can expect these harms to increase significantly as the price goes up, with quality control out the window and the manufacturing process going underground.

Overall, the health risks of nitrous oxide, in my view, probably aren’t sufficient for control”


Overall, the health risks of nitrous oxide, in my view, probably aren’t sufficient for control,” Professor Sumnall says. I think a recent media focus on some of the extreme and rare neurological damage [has] provided quite a focus point in public discussions around nitrous oxide.” He adds: And there’s been a lack of discussion about how common these types of extreme effects are. They are very rare.” The media coverage also raised public awareness about behaviour surrounding nos like littering. This might make control on the basis of antisocial behaviour and littering more acceptable,” Professor Sumnall adds.

The Dutch government have recently said they will ban nos, citing health and road safety concerns (with more than 1,800 crashes and 62 deaths over a three-year period related to the drug). But in the UK the motive appears to be all about anti-social behaviour. This all started in 2020 when Rosie Duffield, MP for Canterbury, raised it in a Commons debate. We have all seen the tell-tale bullet-shaped silver canisters littering our beaches and parks,” she said, before focusing on the social impact of nos rather than any neurological side effects of the drug: young children finding canisters, dangerous driving, young people hanging out in parks.

In September 2021, Priti Patel, then the home secretary, commissioned a review of nos from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, who advise the government on drug policy. Their report will be ready in April, but the government has been known to ignore their advice if it’s politically inconvenient. However, early this year the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, hinted at government action in a speech, saying: Nitrous oxide in children’s playgrounds … makes life miserable for so many.”

Let’s be real: if you want to talk about anti-social behaviour associated with a drug, let’s talk about alcohol – if you go to any large town in England at 1am on a Saturday morning, you’ll probably see men shredding each other’s faces with glass bottles. Yet nos poses relatively limited risk when used in moderate doses.

The implications of this ban, which looks to be unworkable in practice, would be far-reaching; the Tories might get some extra support for being hard on drugs”, but a whole load of young people will be criminalised. After weed, nos is the most common drug amongst 16 – 24-year-olds in England with 3.9 per cent of adults within that age bracket using it. So, if this goes ahead we can expect that thousands of young people will receive warnings, confiscations, fines that could lead to criminal records, adversely affecting their potential future employment, travel and education opportunities.

In a civilised society, you fine people for minor infractions like littering or not wearing a seatbelt. You don’t destroy their lives. Rishi Sunak was recently fined for not wearing a seatbelt and was previously fined in 2020 for attending an illegal gathering during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. But now he wants to crack down on others for the same type of minor infraction he himself expects forgiveness for?

Laws like this specifically target marginalised ethnic groups. Between April 2020 and March 2021, 7.5 white people per 1,000 were stopped by the police and searched. But there were 52.6 per 1,000 Black people searched. That’s according to the government’s latest statistics on stop and search, published last year. In 2020, the figures showed that Black people were nine times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than white people”.

The Tories are happy for young people to be criminalised, marginalised groups to be further discriminated against and the harms of nitrous oxide to actually increase. As long as they can appear to be tough on certain crimes. (Not tax avoidance, though – perish the thought.) This not only shows the callous and underhanded way they run this country, it also demonstrates how embarrassingly thirsty they have become for any type of approval.

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