Nitrous oxide is to become a Class C controlled substance, the government has announced.
Commonly known as laughing gas, the substance has many uses in medicine and manufacturing, but when inhaled — often directly from canisters intended for making whipped cream — it produces temporary psychoactive effects, including euphoria and uncontrollable laughter.
Under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, it is an offence to knowingly or recklessly supply nitrous oxide if it is likely to be used for its psychoactive effects.
In a government-commissioned nitrous oxide harms assessment, published in March 2023, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) said that the Act “remains the appropriate drug legislation to tackle supply of nitrous oxide for non-legitimate use”, although it added that there is “a need for enforcement of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 to be supported by additional interventions designed to reduce health and social harms”.
However, in a written response to the assessment, published on 23 March 2023, Chris Philp, minister for crime, policing, and fire, said that “the Government has decided to bring forward legislation to control nitrous oxide under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 as a Class C drug”.
Philp cited the recent rise in reports of health and social harms as a result of the substance, as well as its widespread use and availability among young people.
He said: “Despite nitrous oxide’s status under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, it is still widely available.
“That is why we have taken the decision to go further, drawing on the stronger basis to take action against illegitimate supply that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 provides.”
He added: “It is not our desire to inhibit its use for legitimate purposes. We accept the ACMD’s recommendation to consult on legitimate uses to help inform how we continue to enable legitimate use within the legislation”.
Parastou Donyai, chief scientist at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) — which welcomed the decision by the Home Office to ask the ACMD to review the harm caused by nitrous oxide in September 2021 — commented: “Misuse of nitrous oxide carries various health risks including — for example, the inactivation of vitamin B12 — which can cause damage to the spinal cord and with repeated use can lead to loss of feeling in the limbs and even paralysis.
“The ACMD has highlighted that while inactivation of vitamin B12 can cause serious and potentially permanent disability, it is treatable if recognised early; for example, new guidelines on clinical practice regarding nitrous oxide have been published and endorsed by the Association of British Neurologists.
“It is absolutely vital that there should be a greater focus on education about the dangers of misusing drugs and appropriate services to help those who come to harm.”