What is laughing gas and why is it banned?

Image source, PA media

The government has made the possession of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, a criminal offense in England and Wales.

Its use soared during the pandemic, becoming one of the most commonly abused substances, especially among 16- to 24-year-olds.

What is laughing gas and what is it used for?

Nitrous oxide is a colorless gas that is inhaled and often used as a painkiller in medicine and dentistry.

When mixed with oxygen, it is known as “gas and air,” which can help reduce pain during labor.

It is also used in the catering industry, for example in the production of whipped cream.

Many recreational users purchased the gas in small metal canisters, dropped it into a balloon and then inhaled the contents.

What does laughing gas do to the body?

The gas can make people feel relaxed, light-headed or dizzy.

It can also cause headaches and make some users anxious; too much can cause fainting.

The most common early symptoms of neurological damage are a tingling sensation and numbness in the hands or feet.

Other symptoms highlighted in the report include stiff muscles, weak limbs, bladder or bowel complaints and sexual dysfunction.

How dangerous is laughing gas?

However, that figure also includes deaths in medical settings, so not all cases were the result of abuse.

Deaths usually occur due to secondary effects of the use of the gas, most commonly asphyxiation when the gas was used in confined spaces, for example in a car, or with a plastic bag over the head.

“There is evidence that there is around one death per year in Britain among around a million nitrous oxide users,” said Prof David Nutt of Imperial College London.

“[In comparison] There are approximately 28,000 deaths annually among approximately 40 million alcohol users,” he added.

What penalties will recreational users face after the ban?

Nitrous oxide was previously covered by the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, which meant its production, sale or import was illegal if the intention was to use it for its psychoactive effects.

But there was no regulation whatsoever regarding individual ownership.

Those caught with laughing gas due to unlawful use risk a warning, community service or an unlimited fine.

Repeat offenders can be jailed for up to two years.

The maximum penalty for manufacturing or supplying the drug for unlawful purposes is 14 years.

Does the ban mean that laughing gas will no longer be available?

Medical uses remain unaffected and you can still purchase nitrous oxide as a propellant for whipped cream and other industrial purposes.

However, individual users will have to prove that they are lawfully in possession of the substance and do not intend to use it for psychoactive effects.

The government says “reckless” manufacturers and suppliers who do not thoroughly check the purpose of a sale will break the law: “To turn a blind eye is to commit an offence.”

The drugs policy is a so-called “reserved matter”, so the ban will extend to Scotland and Northern Ireland.

However, the police are decentralized.

When MPs in Westminster voted in favor of the new legislation in September 2023, SNP MPs voted against the ban, describing drug use as “a public health problem” rather than a criminal matter.

The Home Office says it is up to Police Scotland to decide how the ban will be enforced.

Is laughing gas harmful to the environment?

Nitrous oxide is emitted from natural sources such as oceans and soils. This is roughly offset by natural processes that remove it from the atmosphere.

However, human activities – mainly agriculture, but also processes such as the combustion of fossil fuels – have disrupted this balance.

The excess of nitrous oxide in the atmosphere contributes to rising global temperatures because it is a greenhouse gas, just like carbon dioxide and methane. Nitrous oxide also damages the ozone layer, which helps protect life on Earth from harmful radiation from the sun.

As a result, the ban on recreational use will likely make little or no difference.

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