The current evidence suggests that the harms associated with nitrous oxide (‘laughing gas’) are ‘not commensurate with control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971’, the ACMD has said in its updated assessment of the drug. The types of harms caused by nitrous oxide have not changed since the ACMD’s last report it 2015, it adds.
The report recommends that nitrous oxide remains under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, but that additional measures are needed to raise awareness of the risks associated with use and tackle non-legitimate supply. Banning the drug, however, would place ‘disproportionate burdens’ on its legitimate use in medical, industrial and commercial fields, the report says. Then-secretary Priti Patel said when the review was commissioned that the Home Office stood ‘ready to take tough action’ if the ACMD recommended a ban.
While the number of deaths and demand for treatment for problematic use are low compared to other drugs, there have been reports of increasing levels of neurological harms – including nerve and spinal cord damage – associated with heavy use. This is particularly an issue with larger-volume cannisters, the report adds, and there have also been anecdotal reports of people driving under the influence.
It is ‘clear that additional measures are needed’ to reduce the health and social harms associated with nitrous oxide, the report states, and goes on to make seven recommendations. These include restrictions on cannister sizes that don’t have legitimate uses and on direct-to-consumer sales, increased health warnings, and shutting down websites involved in non-legitimate sales. It also recommends more information and advice being made available via healthcare staff and at festivals, as well as better monitoring of health and social harms.
‘Nitrous oxide remains a widely used drug in the UK,’ said ACMD chair Professor Owen Bowden-Jones. ‘While the number of deaths related to nitrous oxide remains low compared to other drugs, there is evidence of increasing neurological harms in people who use nitrous oxide in a persistent and heavy way and also reports of increasing social harms such as littering of canisters and driving under the influence. Today the ACMD has made a number of recommendations to tackle these emerging harms including restricting availability, giving local authorities and police proportionate powers to intervene, and educating people who use nitrous oxide of the harms and how to reduce them. Tackling any type of drug use requires careful consideration of not just the drug, but the broader circumstances in which drug use takes place. No one intervention will succeed alone, but taken together, we believe that these measures will help to reverse the recent increase in harms, for the benefit of all.’
Nitrous oxide: updated harms assessment – read it here