Possessing laughing gas – or nitrous oxide – is to become illegal this week with repeat offenders facing up to two years in prison.
Kent’s Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Scott is among those welcoming its reclassification as a controlled Class C drug, which he says will give police new powers to to ‘clamp down’ on anti-social behaviour, and here’s what the changes mean:
What is nitrous oxide?
Nitrous oxide is a colourless gas commonly used as a painkiller in medicine and dentistry where it’s also valued for its anti-anxiety effects.
It is also used when producing whipped cream in cooking.
But it has grown in popularity as a recreational drug, particularly during the pandemic, and is now estimated to be one of the most-used drugs by 16 to 24-year-olds in the UK.
When it is inhaled by users it makes people feel relaxed, light-headed, sometimes dizzy and giggly – hence its ‘laughing gas’ nickname.
However heavy, regular abuse of the drug, says the government, can also carry significant health risks for users including anaemia and in more severe cases, nerve damage or paralysis.
It has also been identified as having potentially fatal consequences on the UK’s roads from incidents of drug driving.
Why is possession to become illegal?
Earlier this year, the Home Secretary urged police forces to get tough on flagrant drug taking in communities as part of efforts to crack down on anti-social behaviour.
Reports, claim the government, also often link nitrous oxide to antisocial behaviour with its use linked to intimidating gatherings on high streets or in children’s parks and playgrounds, where large numbers of the empty gas canisters are also frequently left scattered across public spaces.
Announcing the proposed ban, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said earlier this year: "I, and almost everyone else, is just sick of having to deal with nitrous oxide canisters when they're walking through their communities.
“And it's not just about the littering, [but] it's about the damage that's being done by the people who are using it."
What will the law change mean?
The ban will make nitrous oxide a controlled Class C drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.
Repeat serious users of nitrous oxide could face up to two years in prison – and dealers of the gas up to 14 years - as ministers pledge a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to antisocial behaviour.
Legislation will also mean possession of nitrous oxide, where a person intends to wrongfully inhale it – for example ‘to get high’ – will be an offence and consequences could include a fine, a community punishment, a caution that appears on a person’s criminal record or a prison sentence for repeat serious offenders.
The maximum sentence for production, supply importation or exportation of the drug for unlawful purposes is also doubling, from seven to 14 years’ imprisonment.
Kent’s PCC Matthew Scott, whose job is to hold police in the county to account, said NOS has been linked to anti-social behaviour in Kent and he is pleased the government has listened and pressed ahead with a change in the law.
He explained: “I hope that the force will be able to use these new powers to clamp down on the anti-social behaviour.
“When they are attending reports of anti social behaviour or they are out on patrol and they see people with it they have got more powers now to be able to act.”
Crime and Policing Minister Chris Philp added: “Abuse of nitrous oxide is also 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.”
What about legitimate uses?
There are still many necessary uses for nitrous oxide that won’t be affected by the man – for example its lawful use in food catering or in maternity wards when used as pain relief in labour.
Licences will not be required to carry nitrous oxide, but individual users will need to demonstrate they are lawfully in possession of the drug and don’t intend to consume it for psychoactive effects.
Reporting the illegal use of nitrous oxide
Once the legislation has come into effect on Wednesday, ministers say they want to see members of the public reporting any illegal use to their local police force.
CEO of Neighbourhood Watch John Hayward-Cripps said: “As consumption of nitrous oxide has increased over the years, there has been a connected increase in reports of antisocial behaviour, including the littering of nitrous oxide canisters.
“For communities across the country, the banning of the substance under new legislation will be a positive move towards tackling antisocial behaviour, and making local communities a better and safer place to live.”