From today possession of nitrous oxide, also known as ‘laughing gas’, is illegal with repeat serious users facing up to two years in prison and dealers up to 14 years, as the government delivers on its zero-tolerance approach to anti-social behaviour.

The ban, promised as part of the government’s Anti-Social Behaviour Action Plan, makes nitrous oxide a Class C drug controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. This means possession of nitrous oxide, where a person intends to wrongfully inhale it for a psychoactive effect – is now an offence.

Consequences could include an unlimited fine, a visible community punishment, a caution – which would appear on their criminal record – and for repeat serious offenders, a prison sentence.

Earlier this year the Home Secretary urged police forces to get tougher on flagrant drug taking in local communities, with reports linking nitrous oxide to anti-social behaviour such as intimidating gatherings on high streets and in children’s parks, often leaving empty canisters scattered across public spaces. This summer it was reported that there were 13 tonnes canisters of nitrous oxide collected after the Notting Hill carnival.

Heavy, regular abuse of the drug also poses significant health risks for users including anaemia and in more severe cases, nerve damage or paralysis. It has been identified as having potentially fatal consequences on the UK’s roads from incidents of drug driving. 

The risks of Nitrous Oxide

Nitrous oxide slows down your brain and your body’s responses, and the effects of the drug varies depending on how much has been inhaled.

Taking nitrous oxide can cause:

  • feelings of euphoria, relaxation and calmness
  • fits of giggles and laughter – hence the nickname ‘laughing gas’
  • sound distortions and hallucinations – when you see or hear things that aren't there

Nitrous oxide can also:

  • give you a severe headache
  • cause dizziness
  • stop you thinking straight
  • cause short-lived but intense feelings of paranoia

Crime and Policing Minister Chris Philp said: “We are sending a clear signal to people, especially young people, that not only is abuse of nitrous oxide dangerous to their health, but it is also illegal and those caught possessing it will face consequences.

“For too long the use of this drug in public spaces has contributed to anti-social behaviour which is a blight on communities. We will not accept it. This law gives the police the powers they need to take a zero-tolerance approach to this crime.”

There are still many necessary uses for nitrous oxide in healthcare and other industries, and those with a legitimate reason for possessing the substance will be exempt from the ban. For example it will continue to be lawful for catering purposes and in maternity wards, as well as for other activities.

Licences will not be required to carry nitrous oxide, but individual users will need to demonstrate they are lawfully in possession of nitrous oxide and not intending to wrongfully inhale it.

The maximum sentence for production, supply importation or exportation of the drug for unlawful purposes has now doubled, from seven to 14 years’ imprisonment.

As is already the case, there is also a responsibility on legitimate producers and suppliers of nitrous oxide to not be reckless as to whether someone is buying their product for wrongful inhalation, with no legitimate reason. Turning a blind eye will also be committing an offence.

If people are concerned about nitrous oxide use in their local area such as in parks and playgrounds they can report this anti-social behaviour to their local neighbourhood policing team, the police or Crimestoppers.

CEO of Neighbourhood Watch John Hayward-Cripps said:“At Neighbourhood Watch, we support the Government’s ban on nitrous oxide.

“As consumption of nitrous oxide has increased over the years, there has been a connected increase in reports of anti-social behaviour, including the littering of nitrous oxide canisters. For communities across the country, this change in the law will be a positive move towards tackling anti-social behaviour and making local communities a better and safer place to live.