Laughing gas could be banned from general sale with possession potentially criminalised unless someone has a “legitimate reason” to have it, according to reports.
Ministers are thought to be considering the move as part of a crackdown on antisocial behaviour, the Times has reported. After cannabis, laughing gas is the most commonly used drug among 16- to 24-year-olds in England.
There are concerns about health problems caused by its usage, with cases where it has been linked to nerve damage, paralysis or death.
Only those with good cause to possess it would have an exemption, such as chefs who use it in products including whipped cream, or for freezing or chilling food. The gas, nitrous oxide, is also used as a painkiller during childbirth or dental treatment.
The law currently bans the knowing or reckless supply of nitrous oxide for inhalation. However, the British Compressed Gases Association (BCGA) wants a ban on all consumer sales.
A review is currently being carried out by the UK-wide independent advisory council on the misuse of drugs, which advises on drug policy. The policing minister, Chris Philp, is thought to want it fast-tracked to April because the government cannot act until its findings have been reported, according to the Times.
The review was requested by the then-home secretary, Priti Patel, in September 2021. A ban has already been approved in the Netherlands over health fears.
It is believed that a formal announcement could be made as part of the government’s antisocial behaviour strategy, which is set to be published in April. Legislation would be likely by the summer.
The gas’s popularity among young people comes from its ease of availability. It can slow the brain and body’s responses, producing potential euphoria and giggling fits. A number of celebrities have been criticised for being pictured using the drug, also known as “hippy crack”.
However, its side effects include weakness in the legs, dizziness and impaired memory. Deaths have been caused by asphyxia, where the body is deprived of oxygen.
Further control of the drug was considered by the advisory council in 2015, which ruled it should not be controlled by the misuse of drugs act.
The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, cited the problem in a speech at new year on antisocial behaviour. He said that “nitrous oxide in children’s playgrounds … makes life miserable for so many”.
Antisocial behaviour has already become part of the focus of the Labour policy strategy, with the party believing the government has become weak on crime and punishment issues.
Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, has previously said he does not support schemes to soften the police’s approach to drug possession.
The Home Office has been approached for comment.