Laughing Gas: Possession of Nitrous Oxide Outlawed

credit: bbc

London (Parliament Politic Magazine) – In the United Kingdom, the possession of nitrous oxide, also known as NOS, has been officially deemed a criminal offense. Now classified as a class C drug, the possession of laughing gas for its “psychoactive effects” can result in a prison sentence of up to two years.

The government has stated that this prohibition is intended to address anti-social behavior and minimize potential health risks to users. Notably, some experts had previously cautioned against such a ban, citing concerns that it might be disproportionate when considering the actual harm the substance causes.

Rising Hospital Admissions: Birmingham’s Nitrous Oxide Crisis

Nitrous oxide is commonly utilized as a pain reliever in the fields of medicine and dentistry. When mixed with oxygen, it is referred to as “gas and air” and is administered to help alleviate pain during childbirth.

However, it is also widely used as a recreational drug, particularly among individuals aged 16 to 24. While it can induce short-term euphoria, nitrous oxide has the potential to harm the nervous system

Under the new regulations, those found in unlawful possession of this substance may now face imprisonment or an unlimited fine, with potential sentences of up to 14 years for those involved in its supply or production.

Earlier this year, experts conducted a fresh evaluation of the risks associated with nitrous oxide, ultimately refraining from endorsing a ban. The Advisory Council on The Misuse of Drugs expressed concerns that making the laws more stringent could lead to “significant unintended consequences,” such as discouraging users from seeking medical assistance.

The Effects of Nitrous Oxide on the Body

However, the government opted not to adhere to this advice, asserting that it has the prerogative and responsibility to take a more comprehensive perspective and consider other pertinent factors. 

The government highlighted instances of groups abusing the drug in public spaces, which has resulted in the accumulation of discarded canisters. Additionally, there have been several fatalities linked to incidents of drug-impaired driving.

Birmingham currently grapples with one of the nation’s highest rates of hospital admissions due to the consequences of nitrous oxide misuse. A recent BBC Three documentary revealed a concerning shift among users in the city, as they have transitioned from the typical small silver nitrous oxide capsules, often strewn in urban gutters, to larger catering-sized canisters.

Low-Level Nitrous Oxide Use: Health Implications

Notably, one particular brand, Smartwhip, originally intended for legitimate culinary use in aerating cream and sauces within restaurants, is surreptitiously being sold to addicts in corner shops. The documentary captured footage of young men inflating balloons with NOS inside moving vehicles to evade detection.

Community worker Naveed Sadiq, who has observed this issue closely, points out, “We grew up as Muslims. Any form of intoxication is a no-no.” He routinely discovers hundreds of discarded Smartwhip canisters each week and highlights that NOS usage is a significant concern within his community. “It’s not like cannabis or alcohol—nobody knows with this; it’s untraceable. It offers a brief moment of amusement, and then you return home.”

Nonetheless, after a year of heavy NOS use, Ali found himself in need of rehabilitation. He describes the impact of the substance, saying, “It ‘freezes’ your brain. I’ve blacked out from consuming so much nitrous oxide that I’ve awakened an hour or two later. 

You’re persistently fatigued, unable to eat, unable to tend to personal hygiene—I lost all my independence. The fleeting five-second euphoria is not worth the devastation it has brought to my life now.”

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What Are the Effects of Nitrous Oxide on the Body?

As per the information provided on the drugs information website Frank, using low levels of nitrous oxide can result in:

  • Severe headaches and dizziness
  • Impaired cognitive clarity, making it difficult to “think straight”
  • Brief yet intense episodes of paranoia

A habitual user who goes by the pseudonym Halima has described nitrous oxide as “one of the most addictive and unsettling substances” she has encountered. She shares her experience of being so consumed by the gas that she found herself repeatedly inhaling “balloon after balloon after balloon.”

“It reached a point where we’d pause to grab a meal or something of that sort, and… I would eat, then engage with the balloon, eat again, and then go back to the balloon.”

Beth Malcolm

Beth Malcolm is Scottish based Journalist at Heriot-Watt University studying French and British Sign Language. She is originally from the north west of England but is living in Edinburgh to complete her studies.