Possession of laughing gas could become a criminal offence

The unlawful possession of nitrous oxide, more commonly known as ‘laughing gas’, could be made a crime in England and Wales.

Sep 3, 2021
By Tony Thompson

The Home Secretary has asked the independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to review the harm caused by the substance after over half a million young people reported taking the drug in 2019/20.

Now the second most used drug by 16 to 24-year-olds in the UK, the ACMD’s assessment could include more education for young people on its harms or tougher punishment for those who supply the drug to children.

Nitrous oxide, which is usually sold in small silver canisters and inhaled, can cause serious long-term effects such as vitamin B 12 deficiency and anaemia. It is also commonly used at anti-social gatherings and leads to widespread littering in public places, bringing misery to communities.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “Misusing drugs can have a devastating impact on lives and communities – we are determined to do all we can to address this issue and protect the futures of our children and young people.

“Should the expert ACMD recommend further restrictions on this drug, we stand ready to take tough action.”

The sale of nitrous oxide for its psychoactive effects was made illegal after the Psychoactive Substances Act in 2016, but it is not currently a crime to be caught in possession of the drug. The Government has concerns that this could be a significant factor resulting in the increasing consumption of the substance.

The ACMD previously provided advice on nitrous oxide in 2015 and concluded that it did not seem to warrant control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. However, given the increase in use among young people and concern over potential long-term effects, the Home Secretary has requested an updated assessment.

In 2019/20, 8.7 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds reported using nitrous oxide in the past 12 months, equivalent to around 549,000 people, according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales.

The Association of Police and Crime Commissioners joint leads for addictions and substance misuse, Dave Sidwick and Joy Allen, welcomed the decision to review the harm caused by nitrous oxide.

In a joint statement, the two police and crime commissioners (PCCs) said: “The sight of little silver cannisters left strewn in our parks and other places has become an increasing annoyance in our communities. PCCs are united in our efforts to tackle anti-social behaviour and make our public spaces feel safe and welcoming for everyone.

“Of even greater concern is the damage that recreational use of nitrous oxide is doing to our young people, with more than half a million of them estimated to have used the drug in 2019/20. We already know that use of nitrous oxide can cause long-term health problems, and we are worried about it being a ‘gateway drug’ into even more serious issues.

“Banning possession of nitrous oxide would certainly send a strong message to young people – and their parents – that this is not harmless fun.

“But as with all substance abuse policy, what is needed is a mature discussion about the best way to protect our vulnerable people. As such we welcome the Home Secretary inviting the ACMD to draw up evidence-based recommendations.”

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