A review commissioned by the government to examine the harms of laughing gas has stopped short of recommending a ban on the substance in an updated assessment.
The independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) was asked by the Home Office in 2021 to provide advice on whether to make possession of nitrous oxide a crime.
It acted following what it described as a “concerning” rise in use among young people, with the substance the second most-used drug among UK 16 to 24-year-olds.
Ministers were reported earlier this year to be planning to ban the sale and possession of laughing gas as part of a bid to tackle antisocial behaviour.
Under the proposals, drug misuse laws would be updated to allow people found with nitrous oxide gas in public to be prosecuted, according to The Times.
But in an updated assessment published on Monday, the ACMD said the substance “should not be subjected to control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971”.
It concluded that the sanctions for offences under the act would be disproportionate with the level of harm associated with nitrous oxide and that such control could create “significant burdens” for legitimate uses of the substance.
Examples of legitimate use cited in the report include as an anesthetic in medical and dental contexts and as a gas for whipped cream in cooking.
This means the production, supply and importation of nitrous oxide for its psychoactive effects is illegal, but not possession.
Other recommendations listed in the report include for the Home Office and other government departments to consider providing additional powers for police to curb use, such as confiscating canisters or paraphernalia.
But it adds that in doing so, departments should also examine the “unintended consequences” of this move.
The report suggests pursuing “universal prevention activity” focused on nitrous oxide – such as education resources for young people and schools, a national campaign reporting the health risks of heavy use and information made available in settings where use is more common, such as festivals.
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Interventions should also include tackling non-legitimate supply of the drug, for example restricting direct-to-consumer sales, curbing the volume of sales customers can purchase, closing down websites selling the substance for non-legitimate uses and curbing online sales of associated paraphernalia.
“No single recommendation on its own is likely to be sufficient to successfully reduce the harms associated with nitrous oxide use,” the report concludes.
The prime minister addressed the issue of laughing gas use in his new year’s speech earlier this month, hitting out at antisocial behaviour and highlighting the blight of discarded “nitrous oxide canisters in children’s playgrounds”.
It’s illegal to buy, sell or possess the gas there, with a few exceptions for food or medical use.
Former dealer, Deniz Uresin said inhaling the balloons eventually landed him in hospital.
“I was using so much gas and bad stuff I could hardly walk, I had so much pain in my body but I was still craving the gas. I was addicted,” he said.
“I had all the time heart palpitations. In the long term, I released it wasn’t just an innocent bit of fun. It was a really bad time.” The UK Home Office has been contacted for comment.