People are being urged not to fall foul of a change in the law that makes the recreational use of nitrous oxide, also known as ‘laughing gas’, illegal from today (8 November 2023).
Repeat serious users of nitrous oxide could face up to 2 years in prison and dealers up to 14 years under the new ban, which makes nitrous oxide a controlled Class C drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.
The new legislation makes it a criminal offence to possess nitrous oxide in circumstances where a person intends to wrongfully inhale it – for example ‘to get high’. Consequences could include:
an unlimited fine
a visible community punishment
a caution – which would appear on their criminal record
a prison sentence for repeat serious offenders
The change in the law was made after studies suggested nitrous oxide was linked to antisocial behaviour, such as intimidating gatherings on high streets and in children’s parks, often leaving empty canisters scattered across public spaces.
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.
There are still many necessary uses for nitrous oxide 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 when used as pain relief during labour.
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 consume it for psychoactive effects.
The maximum sentence for production, supply importation or exportation of the drug for unlawful purposes has now doubled, from 7 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 to misuse, with no legitimate reason. Turning a blind eye will be committing an offence.
Sergeant Graham Whitt, of Nottinghamshire Police’s Substance Misuse team, urged people to familiarise themselves with the law changes.
“The recreational use of nitrous oxide is a worrying trend that puts people’s health at risk, hence why the law has been changed.
“We are encouraging people to familiarise themselves with the changes in the law and to really think about the possible consequences of possessing, selling or inhaling this substance.
“We’re also asking parents and families to support us by being vigilant for the signs of nitrous oxide and to talk to their children about the risks associated with it and ensure they are safe.
“I would also ask our local communities to help us keep people safe. If you see any suspicious activity where you think nitrous oxide is being consumed, please report it to Nottinghamshire Police on 101.”
More information about nitrous oxide and the law can be found below.
What is nitrous oxide?
Nitrous oxide is a colourless gas, also known as ‘laughing gas’. It can be misused for its psychoactive effects – or to ‘get a high’ – by inhalation.
What changes to the law have been made?
It is already illegal to produce, supply, import or export nitrous oxide for psychoactive purposes. There is also a responsibility on suppliers to not be reckless as to whether someone might be buying from their legitimate business to misuse the drug.
The law was recently updated to also make possession of nitrous oxide illegal, unless for a legitimate reason, making it a Class C drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.
As of today (8 November), it is a criminal offence to be found in possession of the drug where it’s intended use is to be inhaled for psychoactive effects, or ‘to get high’.
Those found in unlawful possession will face either an unlimited fine, a visible community punishment, or a caution - which would appear on their criminal record - and for repeat serious offenders, a prison sentence of up to two years.
Under the law changes, the penalty for supply or production has doubled, to up to 14 years in prison.
Why was the law changed?
There have been growing concerns about misuse of nitrous oxide and its impacts.
Heavy nitrous oxide use can result in serious health harms such as neurological damage and even death due to the risk of falling unconscious and/or suffocating from the lack of oxygen.
Associated antisocial behaviour causes wider harm felt by communities and to the environment. This includes group gatherings to abuse the drug in public spaces, such as children’s parks or high streets, and subsequent littering of the discarded canisters. There have also been several deaths connected to drug driving incidents.
In 2020/21, nitrous oxide was the third most used drug among 16 to 59 year olds in England and Wales according to NHS data. A separate ONS report suggested that equates to around 230,000 young people who inhaled this harmful substance in England and Wales in the year ending June 2022.
What is a legitimate use of nitrous oxide?
There are a broad range of legitimate uses of nitrous oxide, for example pain relief in medical settings, including dentistry. It is also used legitimately in industry, for manufacturing and technical processes, such as food packaging, but also in catering, as a whipped cream propellant. Hobbyists also use it in activities such as drag racing and model rocketry.
What should you do if you see someone with nitrous oxide?
You can report incidents by contacting Nottinghamshire Police on 101. In an emergency, call 999.
You can also contact Crimestoppers to report a crime anonymously at www.crimestoppers-uk.org or by calling
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