What is nitrous oxide? Laughing gas will become illegal within a month

Police officers carry canisters of nitrous oxide, known as laughing gas (Susannah Ireland/AFP via Getty Images)
Police officers carry canisters of nitrous oxide, known as laughing gas (Susannah Ireland/AFP via Getty Images)

Laughing gaswill become illegal in November, with dealers facing up to 14 years in prison.

The Home Office said having nitrous oxide will be banned from November 8 and serious repeat offenders could be jailed for up to two years.

The nitrous oxide ban was promised as part of the Government’s Anti-Social Behaviour Action Plan and it will make the substance a controlled class C drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

Secondary legislation laid on Wednesday will mean possession of nitrous oxide, where a person intends to wrongfully inhale it, will be an offence.

NOS, which is often inhaled from balloons, is the third most commonly used drug among 16 to 24-year-olds in England.

Following Notting Hill carnival last month, Kensington and Chelsea council said it collected five skips of empty NOS canisters from its streets.

Ministers have long wanted to ban the sale and possession of the drug as part of an effort to tackle antisocial behaviour.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman said: “The British people are fed up with yobs abusing drugs in public spaces and leaving behind a disgraceful mess for others to clean up.

“Earlier this year the prime minister and I promised a zero-tolerance approach to antisocial behaviour and that is what we are delivering. If you are caught using ‘laughing gas’ as a drug, you could be hit with a hefty fine or face jail time.

“New schemes are already underway to increase police patrols in hotspot areas of antisocial behaviour and dish out punishments for perpetrators more quickly, and police will soon be able to drug test people arrested for a wider range of illegal drugs.”

Here’s everything you need to know about nitrous oxide.

What is nitrous oxide?

Nitrous oxide, commonly known as NOS, laughing gas, or nitrous, is a colourless, non-flammable gas that, at room temperature, has a slightly sweet smell and taste. The drug was discovered by chemist Joseph Priestley in 1772 and has subsequently been the subject of myriad experiments and cartoons.

It has significant medical uses, specifically in dentistry and surgery, for its anesthetic and pain-reducing qualities. Its colloquial name, laughing gas, is due to the euphoric effects it has upon inhaling.

There are concerns about health problems caused by its usage, and it has been linked to nerve damage, paralysis or death.

It makes inactive vitamin B12, which can lead to neurological problems, as, “B12 is crucial in the production of myelin, which is the fatty sheath around nerves in your body,” said Dr Trevor Pickersgill, a consultant neurologist at Cardiff and Vale University Health Board.

When B12 is inactivated by nitrous oxide, the myelin is no longer kept in good repair, which can cause “spinal-cord damage, which can be irreversible if untreated”, Dr Pickersgill said.

Current legislation bans the knowing or reckless supply of nitrous oxide for inhalation so the ban on all direct consumer sales will be a tightening up of the law.

In a 2019-20 Crime Survey for England and Wales, almost nine per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds said they’d taken nitrous oxide in the past year, a rise of 6.1 per cent from 2012-13, the Guardian reported.

What are the effects of nitrous oxide and is it safe?

Inhaling nitrous oxide can be fatal if you don’t get enough oxygen, which is known as hypoxia, explains the Alcohol and Drug Foundation.

According to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, its short-term impacts include:

  • euphoria

  • numbness of the body

  • sedation

  • giddiness

  • uncontrolled laughter

  • uncoordinated movements

  • blurred vision

  • confusion

  • dizziness and light-headedness

  • sweating

  • feeling unusually tired or weak

  • sudden death

Prolonged exposure to nitrous oxide can cause:

  • memory loss

  • vitamin B12 depletion (long-term depletion causes brain and nerve damage)

  • ringing or buzzing in the ears

  • incontinence

  • numbness in the hands or feet

  • limb spasms

  • potential birth defects (if consumed during pregnancy)

  • weakened immune system

  • disruption to reproductive systems

  • depression

  • psychological dependence

  • psychosis

Is nitrous oxide illegal?

At present, no, but it is expected that will change in the coming weeks. Current legislation bans the knowing or reckless supply of nitrous oxide for inhalation but campaigners say it is a “grey area” and the law needs to be toughened up.

How long does nitrous oxide stay in your system?

Talk to Frank says the length of effects and how long the drug stays in your system depend on how much you’ve taken, your size and what other drugs you may have also taken.

A spokesman said: “Nitrous oxide is often taken in combination with other drugs. So its effects can be unpredictable, as it depends on what other drugs are being taken with it.

“It is a short-acting drug which can lead to people to frequently re-dose and end up using more than they intended.”

Why are ministers planning to ban the sale of nitrous oxide?

Last year, doctors and police issued a warning over a rise in cases of nerve damage linked to the use of nitrous oxide.

Experts have revealed that, as the use of the drug has increased, so too have cases of spinal-cord and nerve damage, including paralysis.

Speaking to the Guardian last year, Dr Nikos Evangelou, an academic neurologist at the University of Nottingham, said: “There is no doubt that we have seen an increase of cases, as this was almost unknown last year and now [we] see cases weekly.

Nitrous oxide canisters can be legally obtained and, according to research, notifications of acute poisoning increased from three in 2011 to 32 in 2020.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak cited the problem in a speech at new year on antisocial behaviour. He said “nitrous oxide in children’s playgrounds… makes life miserable for so many”.