The UK government is set to make nitrous oxide – also known commonly as laughing gas – illegal by the end of this year. Whilst the supply of the drug for recreational purposes is currently banned, possession is still allowed. But this is about to change. This decision comes after the Conservative government has promised to come down hard on drug use, with no exception.
We’re going to take a look at why the government has decided to do this, what this decision actually means, and what nitrous oxide is. It may be called laughing gas, but the UK authorities evidently do not believe it to be a laughing matter. Let’s delve in.
What is Nitrous Oxide?
Nitrous oxide, commonly known as N2O or simply ‘laughing gas,’ is a substance that is used both in medical practices and recreationally. It has long been associated with dentistry, as it is used often as a mild sedative during dental practice. Have you ever been at the dentist and seen or experienced one of those small masks that fits over the nose? Well that’s nitrous oxide. This substance does not send the patient to sleep, but instead keeps them awake and with less sense for pain. However, this colorless and sweet-smelling gas has a rich history, diverse applications, and significant implications for both the environment and human health. This is because it is now a very popular party drug.
Nitrous oxide was first discovered by English chemist and natural philosopher Sir Joseph Priestley in 1772. However, its anaesthetic properties were not recognised until decades later when American dentist Horace Wells witnessed the pain-relieving effects of the gas at a travelling carnival. This discovery paved the way for nitrous oxide’s use in dentistry as an anaesthetic. However, In the early 19th century, nitrous oxide gained popularity as an entertainment substance at public gatherings and parties, earning it the nickname ‘laughing gas’ due to the euphoric and laughter-inducing effects it can produce when inhaled in moderate amounts. In the UK, nos is now the second most commonly used drug after cannabis for 16-24 year olds. This is part of the reason why the next stage in nitrous oxide’s history will be its ban in England by the end of 2023.
Taking Nitrous Oxide
When people consume nos recreationally it is quite an obvious act. Usually a small metal canister containing the gas will be released – using a cracker – and the substance will be transferred into a balloon. The user will then place their mouth over the balloon, and will then slowly breathe in and out until the gas is finished. As they begin breathing the gas in and out, the brain and body responses slow down. The individual will begin to feel very different and it’s this specific feeling that makes nos so popular. Steve-O, famous Jackass star, used to be addicted to the substance, calling it ‘hippie crack’. The NY Times writes:
“At times he would use hundreds of canisters per day, he said. “In my active nitrous addiction, I would make every effort to inhale only nitrous, like, to the exclusion of even air,” he said. “To lose consciousness wasn’t failure — that was the goal.”
Whilst it’s called ‘laughing gas’, this isn’t the only feeling it gives. Nos can take users to other realms. I still swear to people that when I took nos in Thailand I figured out the point of existence. Sadly, as it wore off, I forgot it. But my experience with the substance always returns to that same realization, but then constantly losing it after a few seconds. The whole experience of nitrous oxide only lasts about a minute, but that minute can be truly incredible.
The reason why nitrous oxide is so easy to get ahold of is because it is used as a whipping agent in a whipped cream dispenser. This essentially fluffs up the cream and makes it more appealing. These are sold easily on Amazon or in any cooking shop. Therefore, many dealers and nos users purchase the substance without any issue whatsoever. It’s potentially the easiest recreational drug to buy. However, the substance is now being harshly criticised as more and more young people begin to use it. Alcohol and Drug foundation write:
“Regular use or prolonged exposure to nitrous oxide may result in: memory loss. vitamin B12 depletion (long-term depletion causes brain and nerve damage) ringing or buzzing in the ears.”
There are even some stories of strokes, or deaths due to the substance. This usually only occurs if the drug is taken in excess, Another reason why many governments are now cracking down on nitrous oxide is because of the environmental impact. At the most recent Notting Hill carnival, 13 tonnes of canisters were collected. This was the equivalent of 5 skips full. Whilst steel canisters are a recyclable material, they are often littered on the ground and there can be huge amounts of these after festivals or parties.
The UK Ban
The UK government has decided to ban nitrous oxide by the end of this year. The recreational use of nos canisters have already been outlawed, but this new legislation will ban possession and give some seriously hefty fines. The drug will now be classified as a Class C drug within the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. Class C also includes the likes of steroids, benzos and khat. For anyone who is found producing or selling nitrous oxide, they can now face up to 14 years in prison. If you’re found in possession, this also can now lead to a jail time of around 2 years. Suella Braverman, the UK home secretary, recently said:
“The British people are fed up with yobs abusing drugs in public spaces and leaving behind a disgraceful mess for others to clean up… Earlier this year the prime minister and I promised a zero-tolerance approach to antisocial behaviour and that is what we are delivering…if you are caught using ‘laughing gas’ as a drug, you could be hit with a hefty fine or face jail time,”
There will also be an unlimited fine for those involved in the possession, sale or supply of the drug. The UK is seriously deciding to crack down. According to the Office for National Statistics, between 2001 and 2020 there were 56 nos-related deaths in the UK. Statistically, wasps, hornets and bees kill around 5 people per year, which is far more than nitrous oxide. Oh, and also, alcohol kills around 28,000 people per year.
This decision, like many of the UK’s stances on drugs, is predicted to bring problems. Many advisors do not see how banning nos will do anything to actually stop the use of the substance, or the risks it brings. Earlier this year, the Advisory Council of the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) rejected any calls to ban the sale and possession of nitrous oxide for recreational use. The Guardian reports:
“The panel wrote that current evidence suggested the health and social harms of nitrous oxide were not commensurate with such a move, while sanctions that would apply under the act would be disproportionate for the level of harm associated with the drug… The panel also said a ban could cause problems for those who needed the gas for legitimate purposes”
As you can see, the council analysed the statistics and realised that the repercussions of banning the substance would be worse than the drug itself. This legislation will inevitably lead to an increase in criminal records, an illegal market and make using it simply more dangerous than it already is. Yet again, the UK government is proving that they have zero desire to understand or empathise with drug use. This ideology is led by same prime minister, Rishi Sunak, who famously stated:
“Drugs are horrific. There is nothing recreational about them. I have never taken them and will be incredibly tough on anyone who does.”
Nonetheless, as of 2024, nitrous oxide will be completely illegal. It is inevitable that it will remain just as popular a substance. Many other nations will still sell canisters and crackers, even if the UK will begin to stop. Plus, the medical world will still require it for certain practices. Ultimately, a black market will begin, where nos will probably just be a little bit more dangerous to consume.
The UK’s decision to completely ban nitrous oxide by the end of the year will happen, despite professional advice on the contrary. The Conservative government is continuing a hard-line approach to drug use, even though a lot of the rest of Europe and the world are beginning to have a more nuanced stance. The excessive use of any recreational substances can inevitably lead to harm, but time and effort should be spent educating and safeguarding people, not just blindly banning. The use of nos will not stop, it will happen in the shadows, with the rest of the recreational drugs.
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