What is laughing gas and why does MP Rosie Duffield want laws tightened?

Sabrina Barr
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As one of the most commonly used drugs among 16 to 24-year-olds, laughing gas has become an increasing cause of concern and debate in recent years.

On 21 July, Labour MP Rosie Duffield told the Commons she wanted tighter regulations on the sale of laughing gas (nitrous oxide).

Duffield told ministers that recreational use has become "much more prevalent" during the coronavirus outbreak and lockdown.

She said: "Teenagers tell me that boxes sell for as little as £5 locally or I could just walk into one of the 25 per cent of corner shops estimated to sell these chargers.

"It is far too easy to be able to purchase nitrous oxide for use as a recreational drug and everyday, up and down the country, thousands of young people are doing just that."

In January, Professor David Nutt, the former government drug tzar, who was forced to resign in 2009 after claiming ecstasy and LSD were less dangerous than alcohol, said laughing gas is “less toxic and less addictive” than alcohol.

Nutt described it as “a logical alternative to alcohol for those people who don’t want to be impaired”.

However, the justice secretary Robert Buckland has rebuked Nutt’s claims, saying: “Giving the wrong signal about dangerous drugs could lead to people’s lives being put at risk.”

So what is laughing gas and what are the risks of taking it?

What is laughing gas?

Nitrous oxide, also referred to as laughing gas or “hippie crack”, is a colourless, non-flammable gas.

The gas has several uses, including in a medical environment, where it is used for anaesthesia and pain relief in surgery and dentistry.​

it is also used in the catering industry, as an aerosol spray, and in motor racing, where it can be used to help increase engine power.

However, it is commonly discussed with regards to its recreational use.

What does laughing gas do?

Laughing gas has been known to have euphoriant qualities when inhaled, inducing feelings of calmness or fits of laughter.

Those who use nitrous oxide recreationally do so by inhaling it, usually with a balloon, anti-drug advisory organisation Frank explains.

In June 2016, the Global Drug Survey concluded that recreational use of laughing gas was on the rise, noting that it was increasingly popular in the UK in comparison to 19 other nations.

More than 100,000 people were questioned about their past use of drugs for the study, with 17,000 saying that they had tried nitrous oxide before.

What are the risks associated with inhaling it?

Duffield said she wanted the parliamentary debate to "start a national conversation" about the harms associated with nitrous oxide, including toddlers finding the canisters, dangerous driving, and health problems such as numbness and psychosis.

Last year, nurses warned that those who use nitrous oxide may be unaware of the affiliated risks.

According to the Office of National Statistics, the inhalation of nitrous oxide resulted in the deaths of 25 individuals between 2010 and 2016.

Inhaling nitrous oxide directly from a canister can be extremely dangerous, due to the level of pressure used to contain the gas.

This is why it is often discharged using balloons, charity Frank outlines. "It is very dangerous to inhale nitrous oxide directly from the canister, and doing it in an enclosed space is also very dangerous. Never place a plastic bag over your head."

Online drug information service DrugWise explains that inhaling an excessive amount of the gas can cause an individual to experience a lack of oxygen to the brain.

“This can result in a person falling unconscious and even dying through suffocation or heart problems,” the organisation states.

Using laughing gas can also cause an individual to experience dizziness, which can in turn result in them finding themselves in perilous situations if they have less control over their co-ordination.

“It can be hard to judge the amount to use safely. If you have too much you can end up fainting, having an accident or worse,” Frank warns.

Regular use of nitrous oxide has also been connected with vitamin B12 deficiency, which “can lead to nerve damage”, DrugWise states.

Is it illegal?

In May 2016, the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 came into effect in the UK.

The act banned the use of psychoactive substances in the UK, defined as a substance that “is capable of producing a psychoactive effect in a person who consumes it”.

The legislation also outlined a list of exempted substances, which includes substances that fall into categories such as food, medicinal products, alcohol and controlled drugs.

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act, it is illegal for a person to sell or give away nitrous oxide for recreational purposes.

Those who are found to be doing so can face a fine and a prison sentence of up to seven years.

However, the law is seemingly not as foolproof as one might think.

In August 2017, a judge ruled that nitrous oxide is not covered by the Psychoactive Substances Act after two individuals were arrested en route to Glastonbury music festival for being in possession of laughing gas with intent to supply.

The defence barrister involved in the case at Taunton Crown Court argued that as nitrous oxide is commonly use in medicine, it could be classified as one of the act’s exempted substances.

A spokesperson for the Home Office emphasised that nitrous oxide “is covered by the Psychoactive Substances Act and is illegal to supply for its psychoactive effect”.

“However, the Act provides an exemption for medical products. Whether a substance is covered by this exemption is ultimately one for a court to determine based on the circumstances of each individual case,” they added.

You can contact the free 24/7 Frank helpline by calling 0300 123 6600 or by texting 82111. You can send the organisation an email or chat with a service operator online.

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