The UK’s Drugs Advisory Panel has rejected calls to ban the sale and possession of nitrous oxide for recreational purposes, despite the Home Office’s willingness to do so, a new report has revealed.
Although the supply of nitrous oxide for psychoactive purposes is now banned, laughing gas or “nose” remains extremely popular among young people. Its increasing use has drawn attention to concerns about possible health and social problems associated with it.
In 2021, the Independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) was asked to review the harms of nitrous oxide by then Home Secretary Priti Patel, who promised to “take firm action” on the use of the drug.
This position seems to have been supported by the current Home Secretary, Suella Braverman. In January, a department spokesman said the government was “determined to tackle this scourge to protect our streets,” adding that it was “actively considering banning the sale and use of this harmful drug.”
In February this year, Chris Philp, the Minister of State for Crime, Police and Fire, wrote to the ACMD to expedite the review, asking for it to be completed by the end of the month.
However, plans for a trial fell through after the ACMD ruled that nitrous oxide should not be controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971.
The panel wrote that the current evidence suggests that the health and social harms of nitrous oxide were not commensurate with such a move, and that the sanctions that would apply under the Act would be disproportionate to the level of harm associated with the drug.
The panel also said the ban could cause problems for those who need the gas for legitimate purposes. Nitrous oxide is used in the food industry as a propellant for whipped cream and in medicine for calming and pain relief.
“Control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 can place significant burdens on legitimate medical, industrial, commercial and academic uses,” the panel said.
Instead, the ACMD said efforts should focus on enforcing the Psychoactive Substances Act of 2016, which already covers the drug, and tackling illicit supply, for example, by imposing restrictions on direct-to-consumer sales, container sizes, and quantities that people can to buy.
Among other recommendations, the ACMD called for the closure of websites selling nitrous oxide for illegal uses.
The panel added that there should be comprehensive health warnings on nitrous oxide packaging, as well as an education campaign on its harms and the dissemination of information and guidance to health professionals on harmful use and treatment.
Doctors have recently warned that they have seen an increase in cases of spinal cord and nerve damage associated with the use of nitrous oxide, although experts say such effects are still very rare.
The panel concluded that there is currently “no substantial evidence linking nitrous oxide to anti-social behavior or widespread criminal activity”, adding that, along with nitrous oxide-related traffic accidents, deaths, health damage and littering, this requires better monitoring.
This is not the first time the ACMD has rejected calls for a nitrous oxide ban, with the panel reaching a similar conclusion in 2015.
Professor David Nutt, head of the neuropsychopharmacology unit in the department of brain sciences at Imperial College London, described the efforts to ban nitrous oxide as a “storm in a teacup”, fueled by concerns over the littering of small containers of nitrous oxide known as “a storm in a teacup” “. whippets.
“People use it as a short way to get high, which is much less harmful in the long run than alcohol, much less likely to cause aggression, much less to impair driving ability,” he said, adding that serious damage was rare. “We do not prohibit bungee jumping [although] some people develop retinal detachment; we do not prohibit jumping out of planes with parachutes, even if they break their backs; we don’t ban things that do far more toxic damage to human bodies than nitrous oxide,” said Nutt.
Harry Sumnall, a professor of substance use at Liverpool’s John Moores University, also raised concerns about the potential ban, saying there would be challenges in enforcing and shutting down legal uses. “Like how the legislation will exempt legal purchases of large quantities [nitrous oxide] for gastronomy, but prevent a purchase under the influence of alcohol?” he asked.
“When it comes to short-term and long-term damage to self and others, alcohol poses a far greater threat to healthy development than alcohol. [nitrous oxide]he added.
A Home Office spokesman said: “This government is working to crack down on drug abuse in our communities, so we asked the Drug Advisory Board. We thank them for the report, which we will now consider.”