The Levelling up secretary, Michael Gove, today announced that the government will ignore advice from its own drug advisory council and press ahead with a ban on laughing gas, also known as nitrous oxide.
Gove announced the plans on the Sky News political programme Sophy Ridge on Sunday. “I think anyone who has the opportunity to walk through our parks in our major cities will have seen these little silver canisters, which are examples of people not only spoiling public spaces but taking a drug which can have a psychological and neurological effect and one that contributes to antisocial behaviour overall,” he said.
He also confirmed that the ban would fall under the Misuse of Drugs Act 197 but did not know which class, A, B or C, the drug would come under.
“We can’t have a situation, we mustn’t have a situation where our drugs, our public spaces become drug taking arenas and that is why we need to do crackdown on new manifestations of drug taking.
“These laughing gas canisters are an increasing scourge, and one that has been reported to me as a constituency MP.”
The move follows the recent release of a report by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), in which the ACMD was clear in its advice that nitrous should not be added to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The sale and supply of nitrous is already restricted under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, and a move to control it under the 1971 legislation would criminalise possession. The ACMD categorically advised against this for three reasons: 1) the level of health and social harms associated with nitrous were not comparable to substances currently controlled under the 1971 legislation; 2) it would be disproportionate to apply the sanctions available under the MDA 1971 considering the level of harm, and to control nitrous in this way could have its own unintended consequences; 3) it could impact on legitimate uses of nitrous oxide, notably in its use as a food additive and in medicine.
The announcement was rapidly slammed by a number of experts. Niamh Eastwood is the Executive Director of Release, a leading drug law charity. In a statement to leafie she said “The Government is ignoring its own experts, in an attempt to outmanoeuvre Labour as both of the main parties try to appear tough on drugs. This is all about winning elections and has nothing to do with preventing harms or protecting young people.”
“Nitrous oxide is a relatively safe substance, and possible health harms could be mitigated through a large-scale harm reduction campaign, educating people on how to stay safe. There is a much bigger risk associated with criminalisation, which impacts life opportunities including education and employment. It is largely young people who will suffer as a result of this decision, they will be the target of law enforcement, they will be the ones who will be criminalised, they will be the ones who will be afraid to seek help if they need it for fear of punishment.” she added.
Whilst there have been increased reports of health problems linked to nitrous use, the risk of harm is still very small compared to the level of use. Use of nitrous amongst 16 to 24 years olds peaked in 2016/17, with 9% of that age group reporting using the drug in the previous year, falling to 3.9% last year. No expert nor clinician appears to support the criminalisation of possession, which will inevitably target young people. Many doctors report that the small number of people accessing health services already feel shame about their situation; criminalising further will increase barriers to those seeking treatment when it is needed, creating more physical damage as conditions go untreated. It also risks creating criminal records for young people, impacting their life opportunities at an early age.