The recreational use of nitrous oxide – widely known as ‘laughing gas’ or ‘nos’ – has been on the rise in recent decades – particularly among young people. In response to this increased prevalence, Home Secretary Priti Patel recently revealed potential plans to ban the product as part of a tougher approach to drugs.
But, is this new approach the best way to impress voters who are increasingly losing faith in the effectiveness of drugs prohibition?
A recent YouGov poll revealed almost two-thirds (60%) of respondents believe the criminalisation of drugs is futile – a trend that was consistent across the political spectrum.
Nitrous oxide is reportedly the second most-used recreational drug among young people in the UK, behind cannabis. According to another YouGov poll, the majority of people consider the drug to be less harmful than legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco.
What is laughing gas?
‘Laughing gas’, in addition to ‘nos’, is a slang name given to nitrous oxide. The substance is usually sold in small silver canisters which are legal for medical and commercial uses, such as for making whipped cream, but illegal when sold as a recreational drug.
When used recreationally, the gas is inhaled – usually through balloons – and can cause feelings of elation, euphoria, and sometimes hallucinations.
What are the risks?
When used responsibly, the risks of nitrous oxide are comparatively small; however, in rare cases, over-use has been known to be associated with deaths. The main risk associated with the use of laughing gas is the possibility of suffocation, though this is extremely rare. Prolonged, repeated use may lead to a deficiency of vitamin B12 and a form of anaemia.
According to the Office for National Statistics, there were 36 deaths associated with the drug in the UK between 2001 and 2016. In contrast, it is estimated that there were 7,423 deaths from alcohol-specific causes in 2020 alone.
Reviewing the harms and “tough action”
Nonetheless, Priti Patel announced last month that she wants the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to review the harms associated with the use of the drug and that she was prepared to take “tough action” and potentially introduce further restrictions on the product.
The move has been criticised by drugs experts and campaigners who claim it is “completely pointless” and a “waste of time”. Former ACMD chairman Professor David Nutt, who was sacked in 2009 after stating that alcohol is more dangerous than drugs like ecstasy and LSD, even went so far as to call the move a “gimmick”.
Professor Nutt recently told the BBC that the move was “completely symptomatic of the utterly blinkered perspective that this Government has on drugs”.
He added: “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.”