What is nitrous oxide and why is it being banned?

The possession of nitrous oxide is to be made illegal under government plans to tackle anti-social behaviour. But what is 'laughing gas' and why is it being banned?

·4-min read
CARDIFF, UNITED KINGDOM - JUNE 27: Used metal canisters of nitrous oxide, also known as hippy crack or happy gas, left on the floor at Roald Dahl Plass in Cardiff Bay following a lockdown party on June 27, 2020 in Cardiff, United Kingdom. The First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford has announced that all non-essential shops will be allowed to open their doors again in Wales from Monday but people will be asked to continue to
Used metal canisters of nitrous oxide, which is set to be banned by the government. (Getty Images)

Nitrous oxide is to be banned as part of a crackdown on anti-social behaviour, the government has announced.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak will outline on Monday his plans to make possession of nitrous oxide - or laughing gas - a criminal offence.

Also known as NOS, it is one of the most-used drugs in the UK by 16 to 24-year-olds.

However, the government is going against a recent recommendation by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), which advised against new laws to ban nitrous oxide.

What is nitrous oxide used for?

Nitrous oxide, known as laughing gas or NOS, sometime nicknamed "hippy crack", is a chemical compound, an oxide of nitrogen.

It is used in medicine and dentistry as an anaesthetic. In cooking, it is used to make whipped cream. Nitrous oxide is also used in motor racing to boost the oxygen levels of the engine and make a car go faster.

However, when inhaled, nitrous oxide is also used to give its user a short, sharp high.

The drug is typically released into balloons from small silver canisters and then inhaled.

Why is nitrous oxide being banned?

The gas is being outlawed by the government as part of a larger plan to tackle anti-social behaviour.

On Sunday, levelling up secretary Michael Gove said the “scourge” of nitrous oxide was turning public spaces into “drug-taking arenas”.

Watch: Laughing gas ban included in government's anti-social behaviour clampdown

He said nitrous oxide use was helping fuel anti-social behaviour that the government is determined to stamp out.

Current legislation bans the knowing or reckless supply of nitrous oxide for inhalation, with dealers facing up to seven years in jail.

Read more: Anti-social behaviour offenders to clean up mess wearing jumpsuits in new plan

It is illegal to produce, supply or import nitrous oxide for human consumption, but possession has so far not been against the law.

It is thought the ban will come under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, but it is not yet known which class - A, B or C - that nitrous oxide will fall under.

What does nitrous oxide do to the brain?

While nitrous oxide can result in giggling fits, which is why it is known as laughing gas, it slows down the brain and the body's responses.

While taking nitrous oxide can cause feelings of euphoria, it can also lead to sound distortions and hallucinations, hearing or seeing things that aren't there.

Nitrous oxide can also cause severe headaches, dizziness, paranoia and stop the user from thinking straight.

Is nitrous oxide bad for the body?

Prolonged use of nitrous oxide can cause vitamin B12 deficiency, anaemia and nerve damage.

Doctors have warned that using laughing gas could lead to spinal injuries.

Heacham, UK. 31st Jan, 2022. Empty Nitrous oxide canisters, also known as 'Hippy Crack' on the floor at Heacham, Norfolk, UK, on January 31, 2022 Credit: Paul Marriott/Alamy Live News
Empty nitrous oxide canisters found on a UK street. (Alamy)

Inhaling nitrous oxide directly from the canister is very dangerous, as is doing so in an enclosed space.

If the user takes too much nitrous oxide they risk fainting and/or suffocating from a lack of oxygen - people have died in this manner.

What has the reaction been like?

David Babcock, chief executive of the independent group Drug Science, said: “A blanket ban on nitrous oxide is completely disproportionate to the harms that are caused by nitrous oxide and would likely deliver more harm than good.

“It won’t stop young people using it, banning any substance just drives it into criminal hands."

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 26: Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, leaves BBC Broadcasting House after his appearance on Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg on March 26, 2023 in London, England. The weekly interview show features politicians and other newsmakers in conversation with the BBC's former political editor. (Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images)
Levelling up secretary Michael Gove announced details of the nitrous oxide ban on Sunday. (Getty Images)

Jane Slater, campaign manager at Anyone’s Child: Families for Safer Drug Control, said: “Criminalising possession of nitrous oxide will only give more young people criminal records, make using it more dangerous, fuel organised crime activity and cause further harm to our families and communities."

But Chief Constable Richard Lewis, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for drugs, said: “Policing would support making possession of nitrous oxide, without a legitimate reason, a criminal offence, as opposed to just supply and intent to supply.

“Officers would welcome the ability to seize and dispose of nitrous oxide, as well as provide warnings and carry out arrests, depending on the situation.”

Watch: Michael Gove announces crackdown on anti-social behaviour