The Government has announced plans to ban nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas.
Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, who has previously admitted to using cocaine, confirmed the policy on Sunday ahead of a new strategy to tackle anti-social behaviour.
He said use of the drug had become a “scourge” as he vowed a “crackdown on new manifestations of drug taking”.
What is nitrous oxide?
Nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas or sometimes “hippy crack”, is a chemical compound combining nitrogen and oxygen.
It has a number of medical uses, such as in surgery and dentistry, where it is used as an anaesthetic. It is also used as a fuel additive and an approved food additive, used as a whipping agent in whipped cream.
The drug, which is currently legal to possess for personal use unless with the intent to supply, is also used recreationally – typically inhaled in balloons filled from small canisters, for short-lived feelings of euphoria, relaxation and calmness.
In the UK, nitrous oxide is the second most popular recreational drug after cannabis among 16-to-24-year-olds.
Clinical research is ongoing into the potential use of the drug as an antidepressant, as a treatment for alcohol withdrawal and as a possible intervention for post-traumatic stress disorder.
While use of nitrous oxide can cause dizziness and it is dangerous to inhale too much at once, there is little evidence of addiction issues or long-term harms related to moderate use of the drug – with the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs assessing this month that the number of deaths connected to it “remains low when compared to other drugs”.
Why is the Government banning it?
Rather than claiming harms from the drug itself, Mr Gove cited secondary impacts of drug-taking – such as the littering of metallic canisters, typically sold as “cream chargers”, by young people who use it.
He said: “I think anyone who has the opportunity to walk through our parks in our major cities will have seen these little silver canisters, which are examples of people not only spoiling public spaces but taking a drug which can have a psychological and neurological effect and one that contributes to antisocial behaviour overall.”
A number of politicians have previously raised complaints of parks and public spaces being littered with empty canisters – though a claimed spike in littering by young people is also linked with non-drug products including single-use vapes such as “Elf Bars”.
Mr Gove confirmed a ban on the recreational use of nitrous oxide would be issued under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 – which regulates substances including cocaine, heroin and cannabis – but did not say whether it would be considered a class A, B or C – which come with differing penalties for possession.
He added: “We can’t have a situation, we mustn’t have a situation where our drugs, our public spaces become drug taking arenas and that is why we need to do crackdown on new manifestations of drug taking.”
What has the reaction been?
Labour’s Lucy Powell pledged her party’s support for the policy.
“I think we want to see it banned as well because I think it does cause a huge amount of littering, of disruption and of anti-social behaviour challenges as well,” she said.
But drugs reform campaigners have voiced their opposition to the move.
They point to findings from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which concluded a review of the drug just weeks ago and concluded there is “no substantive evidence of links between nitrous oxide and anti-social behaviour”.
The independent report stated it should not be banned because it “would be disproportionate for the level of harm associated with nitrous oxide and could have significant unintended consequences”. It also raised concerns about “significant burdens for legitimate medical, industrial, commercial, and academic uses” if a ban goes ahead.
Jane Slater of 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.
“If this Government is serious about addressing the problems with nitrous oxide then it would listen to the experts who are recommending a health-led approach supported by better use of existing controls.”
Steve Rolles of Transform Drug Policy Foundation 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.
“But criminalising possession of nitrous oxide will increase health and social harms associated with it, creating new costs across the criminal justice system.
“To reduce risks, this Government should 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.”