Possession of nitrous oxide becomes illegal in the UK today – but could the new law do more harm than good?
Nos, balloons, laughing gas, hippy crack: whatever you want to call it, people have been using nitrous oxide to get high for centuries, but it has become particularly popular in the last ten years. The drug, which is used legitimately in a number of industries ranging from medicine to catering, offers users a short high lasting just a few minutes and is extremely accessible.
Until today (November 8), nos was banned for recreational use under the Psychoactive Substances Act, but was legal to buy and possess, as long as you were purchasing it for a legitimate reason. However, from today, nos has officially been scheduled as a Class C drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act, making it a criminal offence to possess it. Those caught with nos who aren’t able to prove that they’re using it for legitimate purposes could face paying an unlimited fine and up to two years in prison for possession or between seven and 14 for supply or production.
Users, as you can imagine, aren’t happy. Ben, a 20-year-old student from Manchester, tells Dazed that he uses nitrous oxide “every couple of weeks”. “It’s bullshit,” he says of the ban. “I think [the government] should be more concerned with the bigger problems that are going on. It seems they are banning the most stupid things when they could be actually sorting out the country.”
Louise*, 29, from Brighton agrees. Laura uses nos around four to five times a year, at festivals and other events, as well as in countries like Greece where nos-filled balloons are sold behind bars. “It’s another attack on young people and recreational drug use,” she tells Dazed. “I also feel that MPs’ attention should be on bigger issues, like the inflation rate, upgrading of railways, or social housing, not banning something as harmless as nos.”
Nos has been a popular policy point for politicians who want to be seen to be tackling the antisocial behaviour associated with the drug, which is mostly used by young people aged 16 to 24. The government decided to push ahead with criminalising nos users despite the fact that its own drugs advisors, the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) advised against criminalising possession of nos, stating that it would be disproportionate to the harms caused. However, the government cited antisocial behaviour, litter and health concerns.
While there has been a rise in the number of reports of serious nos-related harms, which can include nerve damage and even paralysis caused by vitamin B12 inactivation, these harms are rare and associated with excessive use. “These reports are of quite extreme cases of nitrous oxide harms, and they’re serious, legitimate concerns to have,” Andre Gomez, a communication officer for Release, which specialises in drug use and policy, tells Dazed. “But from my understanding, they’re also happening from quite intense and excessive use of nitrous oxide, like sessions where people are consuming something like hundreds of canisters in one sitting.”
There have also been some deaths associated with nos use, including driving deaths, but the number of nos-related deaths are relatively low, especially compared with other drugs. For example, nos has accounted for an average of 4.5 drug deaths a year since 2012, according to the latest available figures. By contrast, in 2021 alone, cocaine accounted for 840 reported drug deaths.
“When you create an environment where people are criminalised for using drugs, what you’re creating is an incentive for people not to seek help if they’re having any sort of drug-related issues” – Andre Gomez
Not to mention, Gomez says, “while it’s not clear how the ban will impact nitrous oxide use, criminalisation [of a drug] is not connected with any real alterations in use.” While Louise, who buys nos from a dealer, only uses nos a few times a year, she doubts the ban will have any impact on her usage. “I’m not sure if it will be harder to access, but probably not as I know quite a few people that have the gear at home. People always find ways around.”
It’s true. When it comes to drugs, people do always find a way around bans. Just look at cannabis, which hasn’t got less popular since it was moved from Class C to Class B in 2009. On the contrary, according to government statistics, cannabis use has actually increased by at least 14 per cent since 2011.
Carl, 34*, from Bristol, “loves” nos. He usually uses it at festivals and buys it from those selling it in the crowd. However, when he heard about the nos ban, he decided to stock up on two boxes of around 200 whippets, which he bought from a website that sells cooking supplies (nos can also be commonly used to whip cream). “I don’t know what the new supply chain for nos will be like, but if it’s still there, I’ll keep doing it,” he tells Dazed. “I think all drugs should be legal. Who is anyone to tell me, a grown adult, what I can and can’t do with my own body?” While many would argue that the legalisation of all drugs would be dangerous, Carl’s frustration points to the fact that a dramatic overhaul of the UK’s approach to drugs is desperately needed. And there is evidence that radical policies are more effective than stringent bans: for example, since it decriminalised all drugs in 2001, Portugal has seen significant falls in overdoses, HIV infection and drug-related crime.
Ben, who gets his nos from off-licences, also says he’ll continue taking the drug, albeit not as often. “I’m sure more dealers will start selling them as soon as the ban comes in,” he says. “It might be slightly harder to get hold of and I’d imagine it will be much more expensive, so maybe I’d stop using it so frequently but not completely.” While it’s unlikely that the cost of nos will increase at the distribution level – due to its many legitimate uses – Gomez says the higher risks involved with selling it may cause dealers to put a premium on nos.
This is the problem with the government’s decision to push ahead with the ban. As Gomez explains, while it’s unlikely people will be deterred from using nitrous oxide, they will be deterred from accessing help for nos-related harms. One survey found that 16 per cent of students who admitted to taking drugs said they had a “scary experience” while taking drugs but did not seek medical help. In another survey on student drug use, only 29 per cent agreed that they would feel confident in disclosing information to their institution without fear of punishment. “When you create an environment where people are criminalised for using drugs, what you’re creating is an incentive for people not to seek help if they’re having any sort of drug-related issues,” says Gomez. “That’s the big fear that we have around nitrous oxide – that instead of addressing the harms that come from it, we’re pushing people further into isolation or further disconnecting them from services that could be providing the help that they need.”
Not only that, but criminalising the possession of is likely to have a negative social impact. “The objective of the ADMC is to understand the individual and the social harms of drug consumption, and their assessment of nitrous oxide was that criminalising it further is going to raise the social harms that these drugs can create,” explains Gomez. “This refers to the issues around the impact a criminal record can have on someone’s life opportunities, and these consequences are more likely to fall on those who are disproportionately affected by the law, such as people of colour or those in social housing.” This is especially true considering the law is shrouded in subjectivity, given that it will be up to the police to discern whether someone is using nos for psychoactive or legitimate purposes like home baking.
Essentially, experts believe that criminalising nos will exacerbate the harms it seeks to prevent. So, what’s the solution? Since the legislation criminalising nos users has already been imposed, Gomez is calling for a “national campaign of education and information” about how to use nitrous oxide safely. “Even if it’s going to be criminalised, we should still be providing resources on how to use it safely, and how to find support,” he says. “That’s something that needs to happen, and something that’s very lacking in the government response.”