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Nitrous oxide: Could the laughing gas ban do more harm than good?

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?

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 has now been banned by the government. (Getty Images)

The possession of nitrous oxide – also known as laughing gas – with the intent of getting high is now illegal.

In an attempt to crackdown on anti-social behaviour, laughing gas has now been made a controlled Class C drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

Crime and policing minister Chris Philp has said the new laws represented the government's "zero-tolerance approach towards antisocial behaviour and flagrant drug taking in our public spaces".

However a number of critics have accused the government of acting in a disproportionate manner; ignoring expert advice; and warning the new changes could actually fuel organised crime activity.

The campaigner said the ban will cause "further harm to our families and communities".

What is nitrous oxide, or laughing gas?

Nitrous oxide is a colourless gas that is inhaled directly from the canister or transferred into a balloon, giving the user a short-lived ‘high’.

The drug is popular among young people aged 16-24 and is the second most commonly misused drug after cannabis.

'NOS' - another slang term for laughing gas - is known to slow the brain and body’s natural response, creating a euphoric feeling which ends in episodes of laughter - hence ‘laughing gas’.

Watch: What is laughing gas?

What are the new penalties for laughing gas?

Regular users of the drug could now face up to two years in prison and dealers up to 14 years.

The move was promised as part of the Anti-Social Behaviour Action Plan and those with legitimate reasons could be exempt.

Secondary legislation laid last month will mean users found in possession of nitrous oxide illegitimately, will be committing an offence.

It is commonly used during labour when mixed with gas on pregnant women as a temporary pain relief and in the catering sector, where it's use will be lawful.

Consequences include an unlimited fine, a visible community punishment, a caution which would appear on their criminal record or a prison sentence.

Why is it being banned?

Doctors say a prolonged use of laughing gas can result in vitamin B12 deficiency, nerve damage, spinal injuries, or seizures.

There are also growing concerns of potentially fatal consequences on the UK’s roads from incidents of drug driving.

“Abuse of nitrous oxide is... dangerous to people’s health and today we are sending a clear signal to young people that there are consequences for misusing drugs. Both users and dealers will face the full force of the law for their actions” added Philp.

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.

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)

What do critics say?

Some experts have given a mixed responses from critics.

Professor David Nutt, the director of the neuropsychopharmacology unit in the division of brain sciences at Imperial College London, describes the ban as “unnecessary” and said laughing gas was “less harmful than alcohol”.

Prof Nutt warned the ban could lead to an increased use of alcohol and solvents/lighter fuels by young people.

He added that users should be allowed five "whippets" (the steel cylinder or cartridge filled with nitrous oxide) of personal use and that the government could set up licensed nitrous oxide bars to encourage safe use.

Jane Slater, campaign manager at Anyone’s Child: Families for Safer Drug Control, criticised the government for not listening to experts who had advocated a health-led approach supported by "better use" of existing controls.

She added: “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."

Ester Kincová, public affairs and policy manager at Transform Drug Policy Foundation, said that criminalising possession of nitrous oxide will increase health and social harms associated with it, creating "new costs across the criminal justice system”.

She said: “This government appears determined to double down on the political theatre of ‘get tough’ drug policing as part of its anti-social behaviour crackdown. This is in the face of its own expert advice.

To reduce risks, Kincová suggests the government sensibly direct resources towards risk education for vulnerable groups, and “restrict sales of the bigger nitrous canisters that have no legitimate use”.

To reduce litter it could adopt a recycling deposit scheme for nitrous canisters, she added.