The UK government is seeking advice on whether to make possession of laughing gas a criminal offence.
The Home Office has asked the independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to analyse the harm caused by nitrous oxide following what the department describes as a “concerning” rise in use of the substance.
Laughing gas is now the second-most used drug among 16 to 24-year-olds in the UK, according to the Crime Survey, with more than half a million people in this age group in England and Wales using the drug in 2019-2020.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said ministers “stand ready to take action” if the ACMD recommends further restrictions on the drug, but one expert described the move as “a waste of time” and “pointless”.
Former chairman of the ACMD, David Nutt, who was sacked in 2009 after claiming alcohol is more dangerous than ecstasy and LSD, called the move a “gimmick”.
Laughing gas is typically used by being released into balloons from small silver canisters, then being inhaled.
While the sale of nitrous oxide is illegal, it is not, at present, a crime to possess the drug. The government believes this could be a “significant factor” in its increasing use in recent years.
Used over a prolonged period of time, the drug can cause vitamin deficiency, anaemia, and nerve damage.
And according to the Office for National Statistics, there were 36 deaths in Britain associated with laughing gas between 2001 and 2016.
Nitrous oxide was last reviewed by the ACMD six years ago, with the body concluding that it did not warrant control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.
Ms Patel said: “Misusing drugs can have a devastating impact on lives and communities – we are determined to do all we can to address this issue and protect the futures of our children and young people.
“Should the expert ACMD recommend further restrictions on this drug, we stand ready to take tough action.”
The ACMD’s review could recommend more education on the substance for young people, or tougher punishments for those who supply it.