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Laughing gas is set to become illegal in the UK in November – here's what experts think of the move

canisters and discarded balloons
Experts on decision to make laughing gas illegal Getty Images

Nitrous oxide – also known as laughing gas or nos – is set to become an illegal class C substance on 8 November 2023. This means users could face up to two years in prison, and those caught selling the drug even longer (up to 14 years).

The government previously announced its intention to ban laughing gas in March, as part of its anti-social behaviour action plan. Now, secondary legislation brought forward that will control nitrous oxide as a class C substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, confirms it's really happening.

The Home Office previously tweeted: "BREAKING: Nitrous oxide to become an illegal Class C substance by the end of the year. We are cleaning up our streets and tackling anti-social behaviour. Those in unlawful possession could face up to two years in prison or an unlimited fine." This follows an estimated 13 tonnes of laughing gas canisters being cleared from the streets after Notting Hill Carnival.

Is laughing gas illegal?

Although it's already illegal to sell nitrous oxide for psychoactive effects under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, it will now be a crime to be caught in possession of the drug (with the sentence increased for those selling). As such, the sale of nitrous oxide in retail shops will also be banned as a step to prevent 'supply for misuse'.

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"Earlier this year, the Prime Minister and I promised a zero-tolerance approach to antisocial behaviour and that is what we are delivering. If you are caught using 'laughing gas' as a drug, you could be hit with a hefty fine or face jail time," Home Secretary Suella Braverman told PA news agency.

suella braverman leaves 10 downing street
Dan Kitwood - Getty Images

"New schemes are already under way to increase police patrols in hot-spot areas of antisocial behaviour and dish out punishments for perpetrators more quickly, and police will soon be able to drug test people arrested for a wider range of illegal drugs."

Crime and Policing Minister Chris Philp added, "There is no question that abusing laughing gas is dangerous to people's health and it is paramount we take decisive action before the situation gets worse.

"Not only are we making possession an offence for the first time, we are also doubling the maximum sentence for supply to 14 years, so the dealers profiting off this trade have no place to hide."

What is laughing gas?

Nitrous oxide is used in some medical settings, such as during labour (when it is typically mixed with oxygen), but is commonly used as a party drug.

Laughing gas is one of the most-used drugs by 16 to 24-year-olds in the UK, and is often taken recreationally by inhaling the gas from a balloon. If you've been to a festival, party or even just outside of your house in recent years, it's likely you'll have come into contact with nitrous oxide in some capacity (even if it's just spotting the silver bullet-like canisters used to dispense it in the streets).

Announcing the plans earlier this year, the government said it is "concerned about the rise in health and social harms" of laughing gas, particularly to young people. "We are for the first time making possession of nitrous oxide an offence; preventing supply for misuse by putting tighter controls on retailers, and giving greater powers to law enforcement to take action against those who are in breach."

What are the side effects of laughing gas?

Experts and users have long spoken out about the potential dangers of taking the drug, saying that it can lead to nerve damage. One woman in particular has been keen to warn others about the addictive potential that nitrous oxide can have, after she suffered severe spinal problems following excess use.

Kerry Donaldson, who now uses a wheelchair, said via The Times that she started using balloons at the age of 18 and increased her intake at the age of 20, by which point she leapt from using a few boxes once every couple of months to using six to ten boxes (each holding 24 canisters) in a single weekend.

One morning, she awoke and found she was unable to stand with a tingling in her limbs. After seeking medical help, Kerry was informed by doctors that it was likely due to nerve damage caused by nos. She was given B12 injections to help repair her nervous system but shortly after, despite this huge wake up call, Kerry sadly continued to take laughing gas on a large scale.

"I do understand it was my own fault," she said. "I didn’t know it would get to this extent."

Speaking about the little-known side effects that nitrous oxide can have, Roz Gittins, director of pharmacy at Humankind (a charity offering drugs and alcohol support services), tells Cosmopolitan UK: "When people take nitrous oxide they may feel relaxed and calm, and they may also experience euphoria and fits of laughter, which is why it’s been called 'laughing gas'. These effects don't last for long, so people may use it more often to feel this way and sometimes people may become addicted to this."

Gittins explains that heavy use is more likely to result in health problems, like nerve damage or anaemia (due to a lack of vitamin B12). "As it can make people feel light headed they may also be at greater risk of having an accident, particularly if taken in conjunction with other substances such as alcohol. They are also more likely to experience problems if they inhale direct from a canister which can also cause burns, so before inhaling it is safer to first decant it, for example into a balloon.

"Using in a confined space, or medical masks attached to cylinders, should be avoided because breathing problems, including asphyxiation, are more likely to occur if there is not enough good ventilation."

She adds that if people do decide to take nitrous oxide, it's best to make sure they're in a safe and supportive environment, with somebody on hand to seek medical attention in case they need help.

Why is nitrous oxide being banned?

In its policy paper, the government said the aim is to make nitrous oxide a Class C drug, with potential prison sentences and unlimited fines for unlawful supply and possession.

The ban – which Rishi Sunak previously branded a "zero tolerance" approach – will be issued under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which regulates drugs based on their perceived harm and potential for misuse, like in Kerry's case. There will also be tighter controls on retailers to prevent selling nitrous oxide for misuse.

The move means the government has gone against the advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), which said nitrous oxide should not be banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

what do experts think of the move to make laughing gas illegal
Corinne Poleij - Getty Images

What have experts said about the ban on laughing gas?

There's been a mixed response from experts to the government's decision to ban laughing gas. Speaking to Cosmopolitan UK, André Gomes, communications lead for Release, the UK's centre of expertise on drugs and drug law, described laughing has as largely "without harms when used in moderation".

"The harms begin to rise when people use them excessively: while one canister usually contains around 8g of the gas, people that have been physically incapacitated or lost feelings of their limbs happened when they consumed several hundred canisters in short time-spans, and repeatedly over days," Gomes notes. "When over-used repeatedly and very frequently, nitrous oxide can cause vitamin B12 deficiency, and potentially nerve damage. There's also concerns around the way the gas is consumed: asphyxiation can occur if you put a bag around your head, or someone holds a mask on you when inhaling it.

"However it is mostly harmless when used sporadically. That is why there needs to be a public and evidence-based discussion around its harms by the Government, pragmatically explaining the risks of use and advising on safer ways to use it, as well as where to get help if needed."

On the flip side, Dr Anita Raja tells us that: "This is a welcome and necessary step. It should have been banned sooner."

"It’s being sold to teenagers and using it can lead to irreversible disability, such as a life of being wheelchair bound," the GP says. "The irony is that there's no awareness around how harmful it is," Dr Raja adds, pointing out that: "It is easily concealed as there's no stench to it."

"The amount of patients I see in a week that have used it, and the sheer rise in numbers in the past 12-24 months is astounding," she warns. "We must save our future generations."

But Gomes disagrees and believes that criminalising the possession of nitrous oxide will not reduce its use or any more of its potential harms. "We know from research that young people are less likely to seek urgent medical care when the substance they have taken is illegal, we also know criminalisation does not deter use, but a criminal record will have a long lasting negative impact on life chances, especially for young adults."

You can learn more about nitrous oxide on Release's website. For support with anything drug-related or for more information, you can call their helpline on 0207 324 2989 or email ask@release.org.uk

Humankind are also on hand to support, with everything from drug interventions to recovery, and can be reached on 01325 731 160 or via info@humankindcharity.org.uk

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