The process to criminalise possession of nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas, took a significant leap forward with a parliamentary vote endorsing its classification as a Class C drug. If this transformation in legislation is ratified, illegal possession of nitrous oxide could result in sentences stretching up to two years in jail or hefty monetary penalties.
The popularity of nitrous oxide as a recreational substance among the younger demographic is undeniable. However, the governmental move towards stricter regulations is not without its detractors, who caution that attempts to arrest the public health crisis through punitive measures might fall short.
During the parliamentary voting process, the bill recorded 404 votes in its favour against a meagre 36 opposition votes. The bill now moves to the House of Lords for further scrutiny, where anticipation of any significant opposition is low.
Despite the prospective change of laws, provisions will remain for nitrous oxide to be utilised for medical purposes, like during childbirth, and commercial endeavours. The potential health repercussions of nitrous oxide, sold commercially in metal containers, range from headaches, anxiety, and paranoia to unconsciousness and fainting in case of overuse.
Rigorous, repetitive use can even result in deficiency of Vitamin B12 that could lead to neurological damage, as multiple scientific studies cited by a governmental report have noted. With the prospective law amendment, nitrous oxide would join the ranks of Diazepam, GHB and GBL as a Class C substance under the umbrella of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.
Those found guilty of illicit possession could face imprisonment for up to two years or an unlimited fine, and up to 14 years for manufacturing or distributing the drug.
The Policing minister, Chris Philp shared concerning data from neurological units that reported an alarming increase in the number of cases of people experiencing paralysis or severe outcomes from using nitrous oxide. Alex Norris, speaking on behalf of Labour, trivialised this amendment as minor and assured that his party would not obstruct it.
On the other hand, the Scottish National Party took an opposing stance, describing drug use as a public health concern, with spokesperson Alison Thewliss asserting that one cannot arrest their way out of a public health issue. Some health experts have previously expressed reservations about a prohibition, as it may discourage drug users from seeking medical assistance.
NHS doctor and Conservative MP Dan Poulter opposed the change, echoing the sentiments of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, that nitrous oxide’s medical dangers are relatively minor compared to other drugs and alcohol. He also highlighted the potential negative impact on businesses engaged in legitimate nitrous oxide supply.
Mr. Philp mitigated such concerns by assuring that exceptions to the forthcoming ban would be extensive so as to not inadvertently hinder its legitimate use in medical research or commercial applications.