In a move aimed at curbing its recreational use, nitrous oxide, often affectionately known as laughing gas, is set to become a class C substance in the United Kingdom by year's end, as announced by the government. Under the new regulations, those found guilty of producing or selling this substance could potentially face a hefty prison sentence of up to 14 years. While the supply of nitrous oxide for recreational purposes is already prohibited, mere possession remains legal until now.
This decision comes despite the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs recommending against it, citing a disproportionate level of harm associated with the gas. The impetus for this change stems from the growing use of the drug among 16- to 24-year-olds, prompting MPs to call for stricter control. Typically, nitrous oxide is released into balloons from small silver canisters and then inhaled.
The effects of nitrous oxide can range from causing headaches and inducing anxiety or paranoia to potentially leading to fainting or loss of consciousness with excessive use. Furthermore, heavy and prolonged use can result in various health issues, including nerve-related symptoms.
Initially, the government had outlined its intention to ban nitrous oxide earlier this year, as part of a broader strategy to combat antisocial behaviour. Recently, more details have been revealed regarding the implementation of this law change. Individuals found in unlawful possession of the drug could face up to two years in prison or an unlimited fine, while those involved in its supply or production could be sentenced to a maximum of 14 years behind bars.
Nevertheless, exceptions will be made for legitimate uses of nitrous oxide, such as in medicine and catering. This gas is commonly employed as a painkiller during minor medical procedures and for producing whipped cream in culinary settings.
The Secretary for Levelling Up, Michael Gove, announced the impending ban in March, emphasizing the government's commitment to addressing antisocial behaviour. Home Secretary Suella Braverman echoed this sentiment, asserting that the British people are weary of individuals abusing drugs in public spaces and leaving behind a mess for others to clean up. Braverman warned that those caught using laughing gas recreationally could face hefty fines or even jail time.
Opponents of the ban, including health experts, have expressed concerns that it could deter users from seeking medical assistance when needed. As part of the government's £160 million antisocial behaviour action plan, areas with high levels of low-level crime in England and Wales will witness an increased police presence, according to government claims.
According to data from the Office for National Statistics, there were 36 deaths associated with nitrous oxide in Great Britain between 2001 and 2016. With nitrous oxide set to become a class C drug in the UK, recreational users could potentially face two-year prison sentences, while dealers may receive sentences of up to 14 years if apprehended.
Nitrous oxide, often inhaled from balloons, ranks as the third most commonly used drug among 16- to 24-year-olds in England. In the aftermath of the Notting Hill carnival, Kensington and Chelsea council reported collecting five skips full of empty NOS canisters from the streets.
For a while now, ministers have advocated for banning the sale and possession of laughing gas as part of an effort to combat antisocial behaviour nationwide. Home Secretary Suella Braverman reiterated the government's commitment to a zero-tolerance approach to such behaviour, emphasizing that using "laughing gas" as a drug could lead to severe penalties.
The Times newspaper had previously reported that drug misuse laws would be updated to enable the prosecution of individuals found with nitrous oxide gas in public spaces, and now this change seems imminent. After cannabis, nitrous oxide stands as the most commonly used drug among 16- to 24-year-olds in England. Besides recreational use, it also serves as a pain relief option during dental procedures or childbirth.
However, concerns persist regarding health problems linked to nitrous oxide usage, with documented cases of nerve damage, paralysis, and even fatalities attributed to its use. While current legislation already bans the knowing or reckless supply of nitrous oxide for inhalation, campaigners argue for a comprehensive ban on direct consumer sales as part of efforts to tighten regulation around this commonly used drug.
A 2019-20 Crime Survey for England and Wales reported that almost nine percent of 16- to 24-year-olds had used nitrous oxide in the past year, marking a significant increase from 6.1 percent in 2012-13.
As we anticipate this imminent change in the status of nitrous oxide, it's crucial to stay informed about its effects and potential risks. Nitrous oxide, commonly referred to as NOS, laughing gas, or nitrous, is a colourless, non-flammable gas with a slightly sweet smell and taste at room temperature. Its medical applications, especially in dentistry and surgery, underscore its anaesthetic and pain-reducing properties.
The colloquial name, "laughing gas," arises from the euphoric sensations it induces when inhaled. Originally discovered by chemist Joseph Priestley in 1772, nitrous oxide has since been the subject of numerous experiments and even cartoons, becoming an essential tool in medical settings for managing severe pain. It also impacts vitamin B12 inactivation, potentially leading to neurological issues, as vitamin B12 plays a crucial role in maintaining the sheath around nerves in the body.
Inactivation of B12 by nitrous oxide can result in spinal cord damage, which can be irreversible if left untreated. Regarding its effects, inhaling nitrous oxide can be fatal if it deprives the body of oxygen, a condition known as hypoxia. Short-term impacts may include euphoria, body numbness, sedation, giddiness, uncontrolled laughter, coordination difficulties, blurred vision, confusion, dizziness, sweating, fatigue, and even sudden death.
Extended exposure to nitrous oxide can lead to memory loss, vitamin B12 depletion (which can cause brain and nerve damage), ringing or buzzing in the ears, incontinence, limb spasms, potential birth defects if consumed during pregnancy, weakened immune system, reproductive system disruption, depression, psychological dependence, and psychosis.
While nitrous oxide is not illegal presently, it's expected to become regulated in the coming weeks, as existing legislation primarily focuses on the knowing or reckless supply of nitrous oxide for inhalation. Campaigners argue that the law needs strengthening to address what they view as a "grey area."
The duration of nitrous oxide effects and how long it stays in your system depend on various factors, including the quantity consumed, your body size, and concurrent drug use. It's often taken alongside other drugs, making its effects unpredictable. The short-acting nature of nitrous oxide can lead individuals to re-dose frequently, potentially resulting in higher-than-intended consumption.
Ministers' decision to ban the sale of nitrous oxide comes in response to warnings from doctors and police about the increasing cases of nerve damage linked to its use. Experts have noted a rise in spinal cord and nerve damage cases, including paralysis, as nitrous oxide use has grown. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also cited the issue in a New Year speech, highlighting the misery caused by "nitrous oxide in children's playgrounds" due to antisocial behaviour. Visit HIGH-COMMITTEE.co.uk