The government has this week released plans to make illegal the possession, supply and production of laughing gas, otherwise known as nitrous oxide. The gas, which is commonly used in medical practice and catering, will become a Class C drug.

The new ruling means those caught distributing, producing, or in possession of nitrous oxide could be prosecuted with a prison sentence of up to 14 years. The law will come into place by the end of the 2023.

The government’s decision to ban laughing gas is contrary to advice given to them by their own advisors. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) released their report in May 2023 in which they recommended the drug was not harmful enough to either society or to the individual to warrant it being made illegal, “Current evidence suggests that the health and social harms of nitrous oxide are not commensurate with control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.”

Users of the gas typically load the gas into a balloon in order to inhale, which has led to complaints by members of the public about the mess caused by discarded balloons and the canisters in which laughing gas is typically contained.

“We are cleaning up our streets and tackling antisocial behaviour, those in unlawful possession could face up to two years in prison or an unlimited fine”, a Home Office spokesperson said.

“The British people are fed up with yobs abusing drugs in public spaces and leaving behind a disgraceful mess for others to clean up”, said Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary.

The government also used the threat to public health as a reason to ban the substance, with some users reporting negative symptoms including paranoia, headaches, lack of consciousness, and occasional nerve damage.

In an article published in the wake of the ACMD report in March this year, Steve Rolles from Transform Drugs Policy Foundation argued that the ban will be counterproductive, and is more of a political decision than one based on science. “By ignoring the ACMD’s expert advice the Government is, again, putting the pursuit of populist ‘tough on drugs’ headlines above science and evidence-based public health advice.

“Criminalising an activity more than a million people each year engage in will create huge new taxpayer-funded costs for our already overstretched police, courts and prisons system. And while there is little or no evidence of a deterrent effect from such criminalisation, we do know that criminal records and incarceration fuel stigma and seriously damage life chances; impacting employment, housing, personal finance, travel and relationships.

The greatest burden of such criminalisation will be carried by young people from socially marginalised communities, notably young black people, already disproportionately subject to drug-related police surveillance, stop and search, arrest, and prosecution.

As well as impacting users, increased criminalisation risks handing complete control of nitrous oxide production and sales to the same organised crime groups that already dominate other illegal drug markets. Empowering criminal groups will fuel violence and anti-social behaviour, not reduce it. Illegal production will increase health risks rather than reduce them.”

Nitrous oxide was discovered in 1772 by Joseph Priestley, and was made popular amongst high-society Britains in the late 1790s by the Chemist Sir Humphry Davy who published a book in 1800 about the drug’s euphoric effects, Researches, Chemical and Philosophical; Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide. In 1844 the anaesthetic properties of nitrous oxide were discovered by Horrace Wells.

It is currently one of the most used drugs in the UK among people aged between 16-24 years and has become a staple at festivals, nightclubs and afterparties.

Government to make laughing gas illegal by the end of the year

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