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As nitrous oxide becomes the gateway drug of the summer, it’s time for fast action to restrict sales

You have likely seen the tell-tale small silver canisters littering parks, pavements and promenades, writes Rosie Duffield MP. | PA Images

4 min read

Many who take nitrous oxide have no idea of the risks it carries; in some cases causing permanent nerve damage and has been linked to 25 deaths since 2010.

We are now in our fourth month of various versions of lockdown and for much of that events were cancelled, family remained unvisited and people could only derive so much entertainment from the Bundesliga.

The constant refrain of teenagers - “I’m so bored!” - developed a new sort universal applicability, that we as a nation are only just, tentatively, beginning to emerge from. That said, there is no denying that this lockdown - a national period of regulated boredom - has also been tainted with anxiety, particularly for young people.

Whether out of school, out of university or out of work, it’s little wonder that people occupied only by a sense of uncertainty are doing something for which Britons’ liking is well known: being beside the seaside.

The Met Office recently informed us that the spring of 2020 has been our sunniest ever, and up and down the country people are flocking to places like Whitstable, the picturesque and oyster-famous seaside town in my constituency.

In as much as they can and in a socially distant manner, there isn’t a problem with people getting out and about in the sunshine. However, as people are increasingly allowed to gather socially my office team are dealing with a corresponding and remarkable increase in anti-social behaviour and drug use, which residents describe as “intimidating”.

One drug that seems to suddenly be everywhere is nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas or nos (occasionally news reports call it ‘hippy crack’, but I don’t think anyone under 50 has used this term for it…ever).

Usually inhaled through a balloon, you have likely seen the tell-tale small silver canisters littering parks, pavements and promenades- even if, like Sir Alan Sugar, you may have found yourself asking what they were.                                                

A 2016 study found that while we do like being beside the seaside, we are also distinctly fond of nitrous oxide- the UK was then the drug’s top consumer. Among the 16-24s, it is second in popularity only to cannabis and its popularity is soaring.

Used in the catering industry to, among other things, keep whipped cream pressurised, its sale for recreational purposes was criminalised in 2016. This uneven legal situation leads to frequent theft of nitrous oxide from catering businesses- something I have encountered in my work as a constituency MP.

It also is sold on Ebay or other sites (for catering purposes of course) and a canister can cost as little as 20p when bought in bulk.

Laughing gas is often considered a ‘soft’ or ‘not particularly harmful’ drug; its quasi-legal status would seem to bear this out and people can mistakenly confuse it as a legal high.

Nitrous oxide causes brief euphoria and fits of laughter - hence the name. It does this by interfering with oxygen supply to the brain; the gas can cause severe headaches, numbness or tingling in the hands and feet, difficulty breathing, unconsciousness, and has been linked to 25 deaths since 2010.

The Royal College of Nursing last year warned that many who take it have no idea of the risks it carries, which can also include vitamin B-12 deficiency, jaundice, mouth ulcers, dizziness and permanent nerve damage.

We must stop anyone being able to buy it off the internet for pennies

Besides the obvious immediate health risks to users, people driving under the influence of nitrous oxide is also of serious concern.

One Whitstable resident commented that there seemed a direct correlation between increased nitrous oxide use and “speeding cars and reckless driving on the high street”.

It is clear that the use of Nos has a direct correlation with dangerous, reckless behaviours. It is also becoming, very swiftly, the gateway drug, with the summer of 2020 likely to be the summer than young teenagers tried Nos as their first drug, rather than the previously ‘traditional’ gateway drugs of cannabis or solvents.

Prof. Adam Winstock, founder and director of the Global Drug Survey, has predicted that Coronavirus lockdown will push many casual or infrequent drug users into more habitual relationships with their substances of choice.

Against this backdrop, it seems clear that the time has come for a considered conversation about the how the law can best approach nitrous oxide.

I am calling for a review into the classification of Nitrous Oxide and fast action on how the sale can be further restricted to professional catering and medical consumers.

We must stop anyone being able to buy it off the internet for pennies. Having had the immediacy of this situation clarified to me by my constituents over the lockdown period, I will be using my very first adjournment debate on Tuesday 21st July to push for reforms as soon as possible.


Rosie Duffield is the Labour MP for Canterbury. 

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