The UK’s drug advisory panel, the ACMD, has rejected calls to ban the sale and possession of nitrous oxide for recreational use, despite repeated calls from the Conservative government.
Nitrous oxide is the most used recreational drug by 16 to 24-year-olds after cannabis. The drug is used in hospitals and dentists as an anaesthetic, and also used in catering in the preparation of whipped cream, foams and emulsions. Due to its legitimate use in food production, it is possible to buy nitrous easily and cheaply online, however, its use as a recreational drug falls under the Novel Psychoactive Substances act.
The ACMD assessment of harms, published this week, follows a 2021 call by the then Home Secretary Priti Patel to review the harms of nitrous oxide. Earlier this year, the Tories announced that they to wished to press forward with a ban on the sale and possession of nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas.
Chris Philp, the minister of state for crime, policing and fire, wrote to the ACMD to hasten the review, asking for it to be completed by the end of the month. Despite widespread support for the ban amongst the party, the ACMD ruled that nitrous oxide should not be subjected to control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.
“Control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (MoDA) could produce significant burdens for legitimate medical, industrial, commercial, and academic uses,” the panel wrote. The report also suggested the health and social harms of nitrous oxide did not justify the substance being controlled under the MoDA, as sanctions that would apply under the act would be disproportionate to the level of harm associated with the drug.
Instead, the ACMD recommended that efforts should focus on tackling non-legitimate supply, educational campaigns on the potential harms of the substance, and comprehensive health warnings on nitrous oxide packaging.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Rish Sunak suggested that laughing gas users were responsible for widespread anti-social behaviour, saying “they spray graffiti on war memorials, discard needles and nitrous oxide canisters in children’s playgrounds, gang together and cause disorder and disruption.” However, the ACMD review found that there was “no substantive evidence linking nitrous oxide with antisocial behaviour or widespread criminal activities”.
Professor David Nutt, director of the neuropsychopharmacology unit in the division of brain sciences at Imperial College London, described the plan to ban nitrous oxide as a “storm in a teacup”.
“People are using it as a short way of getting high that is way less damaging in the long term than alcohol, much less likely to cause aggression, much less impairing of people’s driving performance,” he told The Guardian.
“We don’t ban bungee jumping [although] some people get retinal detachments; we don’t ban people jumping out of airplanes with parachutes, even though they break their backs; we don’t ban things that cause a lot more toxic damage to people’s bodies than nitrous oxide.”