Priti Patel has announced that the Home Office is seeking advice on whether to criminalise the possession of laughing gas.
In a move branded branded a “waste of time” by drug experts and “baffling” by one Tory MP, the government has asked the independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to review the harm caused by nitrous oxide.
It comes just weeks after drug-related deaths were found to have hit an all-time high in England and Wales for the eighth consecutive year, most involving opiates, and follows the publication of a damning landmark review which concluded that England’s drug treatment system is currently “not fit for purpose”.
The Home Office said it is acting following what it calls a “concerning” rise in nitrous oxide use among young people.
Nitrous oxide is the second most-used drug among 16 to 24-year-olds in the UK, behind cannabis, with nearly 550,000 people in that age group reporting taking it in the latest annual crime survey by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
However, while up on 2013 levels, the proportion of young people in England and Wales using nitrous oxide has been the same for the past four years, according to ONS, sitting at 8.7 per cent at the last count.
The sale of nitrous oxide for its psychoactive effects became illegal under the Psychoactive Substances Act in 2016, but it is not a crime to possess the drug.
The government is reported to be concerned this is a “significant factor” in its use, and the home secretary said that “should the expert ACMD recommend further restrictions on this drug, we stand ready to take tough action”.
But Adam Winstock, a consultant psychiatrist and addiction medicine specialist, said criminalising possession of the drug “would likely lead to illicit sales” and would merely “add the risk of criminality to all”.
“Asking for evidence is great but the ACMD advice comes framed by the current home secretary’s preconceived notion that a problem related to drug use can be successfully addressed by making something illegal,” said Prof Winstock, founder of the Global Drug Survey.
“This is palpably and evidentially false. But making a drug with minimal risk to most users illegal will add the risk of criminality to all.”
Nitrous oxide is “very safe” compared to other drugs, Prof Winstock said, with the risk of accidental harm low but increased when consumed with other substances. But he said the risk of nerve damage is “real and significant”, with a study on 16,000 users showing just over 3 per cent reported symptoms consistent with nerve damage.
“That is a worry. But avoidable,” he said. “Smart education, not blunt regulation, is required.”
When used recreationally, nitrous oxide is typically released into balloons from small silver canisters and inhaled, giving temporary feelings of relaxation and euphoria. It is also used medically as an anaesthetic, given for instance to women in labour.
Prolonged use of nitrous oxide can cause vitamin B12 deficiency, anaemia and nerve damage, and the substance has been associated with 36 deaths between 2001 and 2016, according to the ONS.
The ACMD last reviewed nitrous oxide six years ago, concluding it did not seem to warrant control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.
The advisory panel’s former chair, David Nutt, who was sacked in 2009 after saying that ecstasy and LSD were less dangerous than alcohol, called the move a “gimmick”.
The Imperial College London professor said it is “completely symptomatic of the utterly blinkered perspective that this government has on drugs”, adding: “This is completely pointless, an utter distraction, this is pretence of doing something about drug problems, but focusing on a drug that has very, very little harm – way less harm than alcohol – and they should be investing their money on people who are dying of drugs like fentanyl and heroin.”
Meanwhile, the government has since faced accusations of undermining the ACMD’s independence, with Professor Alex Stevens quitting the panel in protest in 2019 at the government’s “political vetting” of potential members.
Prof Stevens cited several instances where a minister had allegedly blocked suitable applicants who had criticised the government on social media, including Niamh Eastwood, the executive director of drug charity Release. She had tweeted that a letter from minister Victoria Atkins rejecting the ACMD’s call for safer drug consumption rooms despite a climate of rising drug-related deaths was “utter BS”.
Reacting to the Home Office’s request over nitrous oxide, Crispin Blunt, chair of the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group, said that “in the light of [recent drug death statistics] this request is a baffling use of the wretchedly limited resources of the ACMD”.
“The already overstretched ACMD should be given proper resources to consider, for instance, the scheduling status of other substances which haven’t been evaluated in far longer than six years and which could significantly upgrade our ability to deal with the country’s worsening mental health crisis and overdose problem,” Mr Blunt said.
Additional reporting by PA