Misuse of Nitrous Oxide

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:56 am on 23rd November 2022.

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Photo of Mark Garnier Mark Garnier Chair, Committees on Arms Export Controls, Chair, Committees on Arms Export Controls 10:56 am, 23rd November 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of the misuse of nitrous oxide.

As many people will know, nitrous oxide is a substance that has been available for many years. Known more familiarly as laughing gas, it has been used by the medical profession for some time, and in its form of gas and air it is used as a mild anaesthetic by both dentists and doctors—I believe I first came across it during the birth of my eldest son, when it was used to ease the pain of childbirth. It is also used to give a bit of extra whoosh to drag-racing engines: nitrous oxide systems designed to boost power outputs are used for competitive motor events, and of course, it is used in catering for both frothing whipped cream and frothing coffee in home appliances more usually found outside the UK. In that form, it is sold in 8-gram mini-cylinders.

Increasingly, however, nitrous oxide is used for recreational highs. Back in my day, solvent abuse was a problem; today, nitrous oxide—NOS, whippits, hippie crack, balloons; call it what you like—is being used for short-term highs by a new generation. It may be referred to as laughing gas, but in reality, it is no more glamourous than glue sniffing. This is not a new phenomenon. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 lists specific substances that are illegal; nitrous oxide is not listed, but it is covered by the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. That Act, while not listing specific substances, covers those that fit specific characteristics and definitions. To fall within the remit of the Act, the substance must be capable of having “a psychoactive effect” that affects someone’s

“mental functioning or emotional state” by stimulating or depressing their nervous system. Specifically, this includes effects that we associate with controlled drugs under the 1971 Act such as hallucinations, changes of alertness, changes of perception of time and space, changes of mood and empathy with others, and drowsiness.

The wide definition under the 2016 Act is intended to pre-empt new substances emerging in the drugs market by defining their effects, as opposed to their chemical structure. The Act is good news: it makes it an offence to produce, supply, offer to supply, or possess with intent to supply any psychoactive substance, with a maximum penalty of seven years’ imprisonment. In short, it makes it illegal to sell nitrous oxide for recreational use. The available data tell us that there were 152 convictions in 2017, 107 in 2018 and 52 in 2019 under the Act, but we are trying to find more recent data. Slightly alarmingly, however, West Midlands police got in touch with me only this morning to tell me that since 2015, it has prosecuted only four people under the 2016 Act.

The Act was formally reviewed in 2018, and the review concluded that

“the use of nitrous oxide…does not appear to have been affected by the Act”,

with use by adults increasing to around 2.3% of the adult population, while use by 16 to 24-year-olds stayed steady at just under 9%. Indeed, nitrous oxide is now the second most commonly used drug in that age group, coming a close second to cannabis, but, as I say, the data are old.

Anecdotal evidence from the medical profession in the west midlands suggests that usage of nitrous oxide has increased markedly since lockdown. The medical profession is picking that up because of the appalling effects that it has on users. Its attractiveness is that it is easy to use. Historically available in small 8-gram cylinders—mini-cylinders—it is inhaled using, commonly, a balloon. Its effects are immediate and include euphoria, giggling, distortion of sound, and hallucinations. Those peak after 20 seconds and resolve after a couple of minutes. It is a quick high and leaves no immediate after-effects. Someone using it once would be able to sit down with, for example, their parents with no evidence that they had been using it in the minutes before. It appears to be harmless, but that is not the case. The reality is that people use it not just once, but for long periods. It used to be available in small 8-gram mini-canisters, similar in size to those of sparklets bulbs—