September 30, 2020

Nitrous oxide: MP wants to see tightening of laughing gas laws

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Media captionExplained: What is nitrous oxide – or ‘nos’?

An MP is calling for ministers to carry out a review into the use of nitrous oxide as a recreational drug.

Rosie Duffield will use a Commons debate on Tuesday to call for the substance – also known as laughing gas – to be reclassified.

The Labour MP says she believes is it becoming a new “gateway drug” for young people.

But a leading drugs charity says any move to tighten the law would be counter-productive.

Silver canisters

Sold legally, nitrous oxide is used for medical and commercial uses, such as making whipped cream – but is illegal when sold as a psychoactive drug.

When inhaled, the gas can cause elation and hallucinations.

In some cases, it can lead to a lack of oxygen, causing unconsciousness or suffocation.

The discarded silver canisters that the gas comes in have become a familiar sight underfoot in many parks and streets.

Ministers say councils have powers to impose public space protection orders to control consumption in public spaces.

Ms Duffield wants the drug’s classification – which determines how possession and supply are treated by law enforcement agencies – to be reconsidered, as well as a look at how its sale can be further limited to catering and medical consumers.

Littering

Constituents have complained of loud parties, reckless behaviour, and laughing gas canisters left as litter.

She says that, as lockdown has eased, her Canterbury constituency has seen a marked increase in anti-social behaviour.

Nitrous oxide “seems to be suddenly everywhere”, she said.

Other MPs have also raised the issue in Parliament.

Earlier this month, Conservative MP Mark Logan said nitrous oxide canisters had become “the cigarette butt of our time”, in reference to their apparently increasing ubiquity.

“It’s a scourge in our society, and no parent wants to see their child exposed to that sea of silver,” he said.

Leader of the House Jacob Rees Mogg said he “sympathised” with the Bolton MP and said: “It is very unpleasant to see this type of litter and he’s right to understand the concerns parents have.”

He added: “It is an offence to supply nitrous oxide if the vendor knows or is insufficiently aware of the fact that it will be used for psychoactive effect.

“Concerns about the supply of nitrous oxide for its psychoactive effect can be reported to the police, and problems caused by the consumption of intoxicating substances in public places can and should be reported local authority.”

Risks

But Niamh Eastwood, from drug charity Release, says it has not seen an increase in reported use, either from official or self-reporting surveys, and that political concern about the drug is driven by media coverage.

Ms Eastwood says any move to tighten the law would be counter-productive. Due to the demographics of those who use nitrous oxide, such a move would “end up criminalising children and young people”.

Official Home Office survey data from 2019 found that “levels of use of nitrous oxide have not changed in the most recent survey year” and nitrous oxide remains the second most commonly used drug among 16 to 24-year-olds, after cannabis.

Ms Eastwood argues that, although there are risks associated with heavy use, laughing gas is one of the safest psychoactive substances, and worried that if its use is criminalised “we could see young people move onto much more harmful substances.”

“Criminalising doesn’t reduce drug use,” she adds.

She says it would be more helpful to run a campaign on how to use the gas safely.

And if the issue is litter, she says: “We might as well have an anti-litter campaign.”

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Discarded nitrous oxide cartridges litter the beach promenade in Bournemouth

‘Social’

‘Max’ – who did not want to use his real name – is 25 and from Cambridgeshire, and says he does not think laughing gas is becoming more popular.

Instead, he says, lockdown has made its use more visible because young people have been meeting in parks rather than homes or clubs.

He says he has used nitrous oxide for a few years.

It is “definitely a social thing” he says, something he uses at the weekends when with friends to “feel at ease and feel good”.

Max believes the drug is safe, and says it is not addictive.

He thinks it is a “good thing” that nitrous oxide use is not illegal, because criminalising it would just force users out of sight.

He believes that the current legal status of the substance allows young people to talk about how to use the drug safely.

But Max is wrong to think the drug is safe, according to Prof Gino Martini, chief scientific officer at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.

Speaking to the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire, Prof Martini warns that heavy use of nitrous oxide can lead to an erosion of the spinal cord, resulting in numbness or paralysis.

The very short nature of the “high” people feel is part of the problem, he explains, because it “encourages” repeated use of the drug.

“The issue is that people don’t think it’s harmful,” he says.

Figures released by the Office for National Statistics show that 25 people died from nitrous oxide-related deaths in the six years between 2010 and 2016.

Rosie Duffield says the drug’s “quasi-legal status” adds to people’s view that it is not particularly harmful, leading people to “mistakenly confuse it as a legal high”.

She also blames laughing gas’s “uneven legal situation” for “frequent theft of nitrous oxide from catering businesses” – something she says she has encountered in her work as a constituency MP.

The Sunday Times recently reported on the measures some legitimate nitrous oxide sellers have taken in order to ensure their products are used for legal purposes, such as checking business orders are from catering providers.

But it is unlikely that Ms Duffield’s debate will lead to a change in the law.

As an adjournment debate, it simply allows backbench MPs to raise a matter in parliament but without a vote.

Asked if the government had any plans to change nitrous oxide laws, a Home Office spokesperson said: “The government made it illegal to supply nitrous oxide for its psychoactive effects, with offenders facing a maximum sentence of seven years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both.

“We’re giving police forces the resources they need to do their vital work, and we have also introduced public space protection orders so local authorities have tighter control over the consumption of these substances in public spaces.”