The Memo: Nitrous oxide is no laughing matter, but will the ban be enough to stop it?

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Nitrous oxide is no laughing matter, but will the ban be enough to stop it?

Chelsey Stanborough – 18 April 2023

Nitrous oxide (informally known as NOS and laughing gas) is one of the most commonly used drugs in England for young people aged between 16 and 24. In June 2022, 230,000 people were reported to have used nitrous oxide according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales. What’s more, it has been found that vitamin deficiencies as a result of heavy use can lead to nerve damage in the spinal cord. It is an epidemic the government have been looking at for a while. Current legislation has banned the knowing or reckless supply of the gas for inhalation, but Rishi Sunak has recently pushed for tighter restrictions.

The government plans to extend the ban as a result of antisocial behaviour by groups that Sunak had seen when undertaking visits around the UK. The government has released a £160,000,000 plan to address not only the use of nitrous oxide, but also other instances of anti-social behaviour like graffiti and begging. The plan is set to make the possession of the drug a criminal offence, identifying it as a class C drug. Home Secretary Suella Braverman hopes the ban will “put an end to hordes of youths loitering in and litter parks with empty canisters.”

Experts are concerned that their advice around the stricter ban has been dismissed. The Advisory Council on the Misuse Drugs (ACMD) claimed that there is no identifiable link between nitrous oxide and antisocial behaviour. Other advisory experts also expressed concern regarding the ban, arguing that it risks placing the drug into criminal gangs' possession. The case brings to the forefront whether further criminalisation creates more problems for its users than it solves, a debate with a significantly wider scope.