Empty laughing gas canisters. Image by ProMo-Cymru.
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Possession of laughing gas could now result in a prison sentence of two years 

The government has announced that possession of nitrous oxide or NOS is now illegal, with users facing up to two years in prison and dealers up to 14 years. 

It is illegal to possess nitrous oxide or ‘laughing gas’ according to government legislation which came into effect on Wednesday 8 November.

Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, nitrous oxide is now categorised as a Class C Drug. Recreational use of the substance for its ‘psychoactive effects’ is a criminal offence, and could result in a prison sentence of up to two years.

Dealers of the drug will face harsher sentences, with jail time increasing from 7 to 14 years.

The ban was originally announced on 18 October 2023 as part of the government’s Anti-Social Behaviour Action Plan.

Nitrous oxide, also known as ‘laughing gas’, is one of the most commonly used recreational drugs among 16-24 year olds. On inhaling the substance, users experience a 20-30-second high and feelings of short-term euphoria.

The ban was triggered by growing reports of the drug causing antisocial behaviour, such as intimidating gatherings on high streets and in parks. The gas is held in small silver canisters which can be seen littering the streets.

Regular abuse of the drug poses serious health risks including anaemia. The drug disrupts the metabolism of vitamin B12, causing damage to the nervous system and in severe cases might induce paralysis. 

In 2021, Devan Mair, a final year medical student at Queen Mary University of London, started the campaign N2O: Know The Risks to reduce the abuse of nitrous oxide in Tower Hamlets.

In collaboration with Tower Hamlets Council and the Osmani Trust, the campaign ran preventative workshops to support and educate young people in our borough. Mair said:

‘At the Royal London Hospital there is around one case a week of neurological damage from nitrous oxide use. Mostly young people present to the emergency department, unable to feel their hands and feet, often with such poor balance that they must use a wheelchair. 

‘Some have very disconcerting symptoms such as urinary incontinence or erectile dysfunction.’

While the government’s ban is an important step in reducing the recreational use of this harmful substance, Mair is concerned that the ban might lead to the excessive criminalisation of young people.

Doctors working in Tower Hamlets have previously voiced concerns that making nitrous oxide a class C drug may prevent individuals from presenting to the hospital through fear of a criminal record.’ 

Despite advice issued by the Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs that manufacturers of nitrous oxide should be held to account, the government’s legislation does not target suppliers. Mair said:

‘Given that the new government legislation only suggests manufacturers exercise caution in who nitrous oxide is sold to, online vendors selling Smartwhips and Fastgas nitrous oxide cylinders by the crateload will still function with impunity.’

It is still legal for nitrous oxide to be used as a pain relief in medical and dental procedures. It may also be used legitimately as a whipped cream propellant for catering purposes. 

For more local news, read Tower Hamlets Council spent £350,000 on private waste collectors during refuse worker strike.

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