Nitrous oxide ban could backfire as people made seriously ill from the gas may put off going to hospital, expert warns

5 September 2023, 23:07 | Updated: 5 September 2023, 23:09

The decision to make nitrous oxide a Class C drug could backfire, an expert warned
The decision to make nitrous oxide a Class C drug could backfire, an expert warned. Picture: Alamy/LBC

By Kit Heren

The decision to make nitrous oxide a Class C drug could backfire, an expert has said, as he warned it could prompt people made seriously ill by using laughing gas put off getting medical treatment.

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Nitrous oxide is set to become illegal by the end of the year, with users facing up to two years in prison.

Professor Alastair Noyce, professor in Neurology and Neuroepidemiology at Queen Mary University of London, said he was concerned the move could do more harm than good.

He said that users, who are very often young people, are "damaging their spinal cord, damaging their peripheral nerves, and some people... recover, but a very large number… don’t fully recover."

But he said that the new rule was "unlikely to deter many people from using nitrous oxide recreationally", similar to the continued widespread use of cannabis.

Read more: Laughing gas to be banned as government plans crackdown on anti-social behaviour

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Nitrous oxide use is widespread
Nitrous oxide use is widespread. Picture: Alamy

Professor Noyce said: "People who develop symptoms, we think the most important thing is that they get treated as soon as possible.

"But if they know that there may be a risk of a prosecution, of a criminal record, they may delay presenting to hospital at a time when their symptoms could be treated and reversed, and that could lead to long-term damage.

"So I’m worried that that hasn’t been considered in this legislation."

Instead, Professor Noyce said, the law should target people who are selling nitrous oxide.

"But young people and teenagers who are trying to have a bit of fun, doing something a bit silly, who are now come to harm - we certainly don’t want that harm to be increased by legislation targeting them to the point where it’s irreversible," he said.

Caller Jeremy says nitrous oxide has caused a 'pandemic' among young people,

The nitrous oxide ban was previously unveiled as part of the Government's anti-social behaviour action plan, with measures including making laughing gas a class C drug, which could see dealers and users facing jail time and unlimited fines.

Secondary legislation was brought forward on Tuesday which will control nitrous oxide as a class C substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

The new measures are expected to come into force by the end of the year, the Home Office said.

It comes after waste crews who carried out the clean-up from Notting Hill Carnival estimated collecting 13 tonnes of laughing gas canisters from the streets, Kensington and Chelsea Council said.

Crews collected five skips' full - with an estimate of more than 12,000 canisters.

Nitrous oxide is the third most used drug among 16 to 24-year-olds in England and police have reported links to anti-social behaviour - intimidating gatherings on high streets and in children's parks, and empty canisters strewn across public spaces, the Home Office added.

Infuriated caller brands the current laws for nitrous oxide as 'ineffectual'

Home Secretary Suella Braverman 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.

"New schemes are already under way to increase police patrols in hot-spot areas of antisocial behaviour and dish out punishments for perpetrators more quickly, and police will soon be able to drug test people arrested for a wider range of illegal drugs."

Crime and Policing Minister Chris Philp said: "We cannot allow young people to think there are no consequences to misusing drugs.

"There is no question that abusing laughing gas is dangerous to people's health and it is paramount we take decisive action before the situation gets worse.

"Not only are we making possession an offence for the first time, we are also doubling the maximum sentence for supply to 14 years, so the dealers profiting off this trade have no place to hide."

Last month, another statutory instrument was laid which expands police ability to test people arrested for all class A drugs, including ecstasy.

The Home Office said it is also expanding the powers for police to test for specified class B drugs, such as cannabis and ketamine, as well as expanding the list of suspected crimes which can trigger a drugs test to include offences linked to antisocial behaviour, along with others, when parliamentary time allows.

CEO of Night-time Industries Association Michael Kill said: "We welcome the announcement by the Government today that nitrous oxide is set to be banned under new Government legislation by the end of the year, but recognise that this must work hand in hand with a much broader education and harm reduction strategy on drugs across the country.

"Over the years, the industry has grappled with the persistent issue of nitrous oxide's sale and consumption, which has been exacerbated by existing regulations that have rendered licensees and authorities ill-equipped to combat this problem effectively.

"The burden on businesses has been substantial, as they've contended with mounting pressure from authorities and residents due to the proliferation of discarded silver canisters on the streets.

"This predicament has not only posed risks to the well-being of both staff and patrons but has also fostered an environment conducive to petty crime, anti-social behaviour, and the activities of organised crime syndicates.

"The Government's intervention comes at a pivotal juncture, given that businesses in major cities across the United Kingdom have witnessed a significant escalation in the challenges associated with nitrous oxide over the past six to 12 months."

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