Last week, the Home Office confirmed that possession of nos will become illegal at the end of the year.
The drug will be treated as a Class‑C controlled substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 – alongside steroids, benzodiazepines (such as Valium or Xanax), and the plant and stimulant drug khat. That’s a maximum of two years in prison for possessing nos and 14 years for supplying it.
In March this year the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), the scientific experts the government employs to advise them on drug policy, released a report urging against any ban, which they described as “disproportionate for the level of harm associated with the drug”.
Then, at the end of August, 15 leading neurologists and related health experts signed a letter pleading with the government not to criminalise nos because it could increase its potential harms. But the government, which wants to look tough on crime, went ahead with the legislation.
Dr. Alastair Noyce, Professor of Neurology and Neuroepidemiology at London’s Queen Mary University, treats people suffering with harms associated with the recreational use of nos. Having written the letter signed by the aforementioned experts, Dr. Noyce has seen an increase in serious harms that a minority of nos users experience if they use it excessively.
In very extreme cases, use of the drug can result in a B12 deficiency, which can in turn cause paralysis. Dr. Noyce was recently one of the researchers conducting a study looking at 119 cases of this “N₂O-myeloneuropathy” which concluded: “Ease of access to canisters and larger cylinders of N₂O has led to an apparent rise in cases of N₂O-myeloneuropathy in several areas of the UK.”
In spite of this finding, Dr. Noyce thinks that the ban should not go ahead because it could actually make matters worse. If you’re smashing nos and you feel weird, your hands and feet are tingling or there’s a loss of sensation in your legs, you can be saved from irreversible damage – if you get to hospital straight away, for an urgent B12 injection.
“If you’re a young person with symptoms and you think, ‘if I come to hospital, I may be arrested, I may get a criminal record’, that may delay you coming to a hospital,” he told THE FACE. “And we think that is where the harms could increase. So inadvertently, by making nitrous oxide illegal, you could cause people to delay coming to hospital at the time when those symptoms are potentially reversible.”
Many experts believe that aside from being dangerous, the nos ban simply won’t work.
“I think you can fairly confidently say it’s not going to work,” says Paul North, director of drug policy think tank Volteface. “And the reason for that is ultimately that this country needs nitrous oxide, both medically and for the catering industry.” He added: “The idea that the government is going to make it disappear from the UK through banning it is foolish.”
In the catering industry, nobody knows how the ban will impact their work. Taking away nitrous oxide for chefs is like taking away a plumber’s pipe wrench and threatening them with arrest if they source another one.
“Nitrous oxide also has widespread legitimate and beneficial uses, including in medical, dental and veterinary settings,” the government conceded last week. “It is also used as a fuel additive, a food additive and food extraction solvent and has other widespread uses in industrial processes.” They vowed to conduct a consultation which will help them “understand the full range and scale of legitimate uses” of the drug before they announce how the ban will work.
It does beg the question, though: if they didn’t know how the ban would work, why announce it?
THE FACE contacted two major nos wholesalers to ask how they think the upcoming ban will affect their business. “We plan to operate business as usual until we find out further information closer to the end of the year,” one company said.
The other said that they would make a move to solely supply in a medical context and disregard the catering side of their business: “I’m sure some rules around supply will be brought into place, we don’t know what they are yet, but [nos] will become a controlled drug, so it will be strict.” They added: “We’ll have to change our policy [after the ban on possession comes in], every gas supplier will. We will supply only for medical and scientific research. Stuff like putting it in cars or whipped cream won’t happen anymore.”
Luke, 27, is a chef working in South London. “Some kitchens use [nos] on every other dish; some don’t use it at all,” he says. “It was popularised by molecular gastronomy, by the likes of Ferran Adrià from El Bulli [restaurant in Spain].” But Luke doesn’t think that the ban on nos possession will affect big kitchens too much. “It’s also used in other professional industries like dentistry,” he says. “I think kitchens will legally be able to obtain N₂O chargers, but the ban will affect freelance chefs.”
Another chef working in London, 32-year-old Louis, admits he didn’t know that nos was becoming illegal at the end of the year. “As a chef, it’s not totally necessary to have the [N₂O] chargers,” he explains. “But it is necessary for the preparation of some dishes containing foam or dough.” This means he’ll potentially have to change his menu when possession becomes illegal. “It sucks, because as a chef you want to feel free to experiment,” he says. “But what are you going to do if it’s illegal?”
When a controlled drug is used in a research context, there are strict conditions on how it must be stored: in a locked safe situated in an area that is not regularly used. Depending on how nos will be classified for research purposes once it becomes a controlled drug, there might have to be an alarm system connected to the police, too. Both the chefs that we spoke to said that these conditions would be unrealistic in most kitchens.
When you look at the potential motives for this ban, it’s hard to escape the feeling that it is, in part at least, a publicity stunt. Is the ban being put in place purely for health reasons? Possibly not, seeing as scientific experts have warned banning nos could harm people’s health even more. Is it down to littering? Well, littering is illegal already and punishable by a fine. Could it instead be a cynical move to try and win votes by looking strong, stable and tough on crime?
If the latter is true, it comes across as more than a little desperate, the move of a political party witnessing their power drift away like a nos balloon into the night. Not to mention this policy will potentially have a lot of victims: the kid who’s overdone it and avoids seeking medical help for fear of getting nicked. Young people who find themselves entering the criminal justice system for the petty crime of having a balloon outside a nightclub. The catering supplier who forgot about a case of nos in storage and is looking at 14 years in prison.
If the history of drug prohibition has taught us anything, as the nos trade goes underground, criminal factions will start knocking out counterfeit, mislabeled canisters – and people will undoubtedly die. On the more benign end of things, after the ban, certain foods or cocktails could be permanently off the menu at restaurants, as chefs will no longer be able to procure the equipment they need to do their job.
Maybe we’ll never know the true motives behind this policy. But we do know one thing for sure: by ignoring their own experts’ advice, the government appears to be putting some young people’s health and futures at risk.