What is laughing gas and why do MPs want to ban it?

Ministers reportedly planning to prohibit sale and possession of nitrous oxide

Sabrina Barr,Joe Sommerlad
Thursday 26 January 2023 10:56 GMT

Ministers are reportedly planning to ban the sale and possession of nitrous oxide, more commonly known as laughing gas, as part of a bid to tackle antisocial behaviour.

After cannabis, laughing gas is now thought to be the most commonly used drug among 16 to 24-year-olds in England.

Drug misuse laws would be updated under the proposals to allow for the prosecution of anyone found with it in their possession in public, according to The Times.

However, dentists administering nitrous oxide as pain relief and chefs using it for whipped cream or freezing and chilling food would be exempt.

So what exactly is laughing gas and what are the risks of taking it?

What is laughing gas?

Nitrous oxide, also referred to as “hippie crack”, is a colourless, non-flammable gas.

The gas has several uses, including in a medical environment, where it is used for anaesthesia and pain relief in surgery and dentistry.​

It is also used in the catering industry, as an aerosol spray, and in motor racing, where it can be used to help increase engine power.

However, it is commonly discussed with regards to its recreational use.

What does laughing gas do?

Laughing gas has been known to have euphoriant qualities when inhaled, inducing feelings of calmness or fits of laughter.

Those who use nitrous oxide recreationally do so by inhaling it, usually with a balloon, anti-drug advisory organisation Frank explains.

In June 2016, the Global Drug Survey concluded that recreational use of laughing gas was on the rise, noting that it was increasingly popular in the UK in comparison to 19 other nations.

More than 100,000 people were questioned about their past use of drugs for the study, with 17,000 saying that they had tried nitrous oxide before.

What are the risks associated with inhaling it?

Nurses have warned that those who use nitrous oxide may be unaware of the affiliated risks.

According to the Office of National Statistics, the inhalation of nitrous oxide was mentioned on the death certificates of 56 individuals between 2001 and 2020, with 45 of those occurring since 2010.

Inhaling the substance directly from a canister can be extremely dangerous, due to the level of pressure used to contain the gas.

This is why it is often discharged using balloons, charity Frank outlines: “It is very dangerous to inhale nitrous oxide directly from the canister, and doing it in an enclosed space is also very dangerous. Never place a plastic bag over your head.”

Online drug information service DrugWise explains that inhaling an excessive amount of the gas can cause an individual to experience a lack of oxygen to the brain.

“This can result in a person falling unconscious and even dying through suffocation or heart problems,” the organisation states.

Using laughing gas can also cause an individual to experience dizziness, which can in turn result in them finding themselves in perilous situations if they have less control over their co-ordination.

“It can be hard to judge the amount to use safely. If you have too much you can end up fainting, having an accident or worse,” Frank warns.

Regular use of nitrous oxide has also been connected with vitamin B12 deficiency, which “can lead to nerve damage”, DrugWise states.

Is it illegal?

In May 2016, the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 came into effect in the UK.

The act banned the use of psychoactive substances in the UK, defined as a substance that “is capable of producing a psychoactive effect in a person who consumes it”.

The legislation also outlined a list of exempted substances, which includes substances that fall into categories such as food, medicinal products, alcohol and controlled drugs.

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act, it is illegal for a person to sell or give away nitrous oxide for recreational purposes.

Those who are found to be doing so can face a fine and a prison sentence of up to seven years.

However, the law is seemingly not as foolproof as one might think.

In August 2017, a judge ruled that nitrous oxide is not covered by the Psychoactive Substances Act after two individuals were arrested en route to Glastonbury music festival for being in possession of laughing gas with intent to supply.

The defence barrister involved in the case at Taunton Crown Court argued that as nitrous oxide is commonly use in medicine, it could be classified as one of the act’s exempted substances.

A spokesperson for the Home Office emphasised that nitrous oxide “is covered by the Psychoactive Substances Act and is illegal to supply for its psychoactive effect”.

“However, the Act provides an exemption for medical products. Whether a substance is covered by this exemption is ultimately one for a court to determine based on the circumstances of each individual case,” they added.

You can contact the free 24/7 Frank helpline by calling 0300 123 6600 or by texting 82111. You can send the organisation an email or chat with a service operator online.

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