A ‘hippy crack’ ban will not stop people using it and risks driving teens to try harder drugs, a former government drugs tsar warned today.
Professor David Nutt claimed nitrous oxide is also far safer than alcohol and suggested it causes 700 times fewer deaths.
He said No10’s new ban, set to come into force before the end of 2023, was ‘not based on scientific evidence’.
Other experts said they were ‘disheartened’ by the move and that it handed control of the product to ‘criminal gangs’.
It forms one part of Rishi Sunak’s ambitious plan to tackle the blight of anti-social behaviour.
Professor David Nutt was fired as chairman of the Government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) in 2009 by Labour Home Secretary Alan Johnson after producing a paper for the Home Office which claimed the Class A drug ecstasy to be safer than equestrian sports
The government confirmed yesterday it was looking to clamp down on the sale of nitrous oxide, know commonly as laughing gas or ‘hippy crack’, as part of its policing mission to crackdown on anti-social behaviour
Fly-tipping and graffitiing will also be punishable with fines up to £1,000 under plans announced by the Prime Minister, who is seeking to wrestle back the Tories shrinking reputation as the party of law and order.
The action on nitrous oxide, better known as ‘nos’ or laughing gas, could see anyone caught facing ‘potential prison sentences’ and ‘unlimited fines for unlawful supply and possession’.
It comes despite an assessment by the government’s own independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) concluding that it would be disproportionate to bring in an outright ban.
Professor Nutt, who is now chair in neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, said: ‘This ban is not based on scientific evidence.
Q+A: Everything you need to know about Nitrous Oxide
What is it?
Nitrous Oxide, has been nicknamed ‘laughing gas’ due to the euphoric and relaxed feeling people who inhale it can sometimes feel.
The substance – also known as ‘hippy crack’ – is normally bought in pressured canisters, commonly transferred to a container, e.g. a balloon, from which the gas is inhaled.
Is it illegal?
Although possession of laughing gas is not illegal, English law prohibits its sale to under-18s if there is a chance they will inhale it.
What are the effects of nitrous oxide?
- Feelings of euphoria, relaxation and calmness.
- Dizziness, difficulty in thinking straight and fits of giggles/laughter.
- Sound distortions or even hallucinations.
- In some people, a headache can be an unwanted immediate effect.
What are the risks?
More recently users have been inhaling the drug directly from dispensers or cartridges, which poses a high risk of severe cold burns and lung injury.
Doctors have also previously warned that it also affects several brain and spinal cord networks.
According to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, regular use or prolonged exposure to nitrous oxide may result in:
- Memory loss
- Vitamin B12 depletion (long-term depletion causes brain and nerve damage)
- Ringing or buzzing in the ears
- Numbness in the hands or feet
- Limb spasms
- Potential birth defects (if used during pregnancy)
- Weakened immune system
- Disruption to reproductive systems
- Psychological dependence
‘The ACMD report is clear that harms do not warrant making personal possession illegal.
‘To do this would also be in clear contradiction to last year’s position statement from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime/World Health Organization (WHO) that we should stop criminalising drug users.
‘Scientific evidence suggests that there is around one death per year in the UK from around 1million nitrous oxide users — a comparison with alcohol would be around 28,000 deaths happen per year in around 40million users of alcohol.’
Professor Nutt was fired as chairman of the Government’s ACMD in 2009 by Labour Home Secretary Alan Johnson after producing a paper for the Home Office which claimed Class A drug ecstasy to be safer than equestrian sports.
He also recommended that cannabis, ecstasy and LSD should be considered less harmful than alcohol and cigarettes.
Yesterday Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove said the ‘increasing scourge’ of nitrous oxide was turning parks and public spaces into ‘drug-taking arenas’
He said ministers had not yet decided at what drug classification level laughing gas would be set at.
Mr Gove added: ‘We want to make sure the sale and use can be restricted for its appropriate purpose.’
But plans released this morning show it would become a Class C, alongside the so-called ‘date rape’ drug GHB, anabolic steroids and the stimulant khat.
Under current drug laws, those in possession of Class C drugs face up to two years in prison, an unlimited fine or both, while those supplying or producing the substances could see up to 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both.
Current legislation bans the suppliers knowingly or recklessly selling nitrous oxide for inhalation, with dealers facing up to seven years in jail.
But there have been calls for a ban on all direct consumer sales.
In 2020, an estimated 25 per cent of corner shops as well as online sites including Amazon were selling boxes of the canisters.
Large cannisters are not illegal and are used in the catering industry, where it is used as a propellant for whipped cream. The gas is also used for anaesthesia.
The drug is typically released into party balloons from small silver canisters and then inhaled.
But more recently users have been inhaling directly from dispensers or cartridges, which poses a high risk of severe cold burns and lung injury.
The ‘high’ kicks in immediately, causing users to feel dizzy, relaxed and giggly, and lasts one to two minutes, on average.
Having too much, however, can make users faint or suffocate due to a lack of oxygen to the brain if they inhale highly concentrated forms of the gas.
It can also result in memory loss, limb spasms, incontinence and a weakened immune system.
Doctors have also previously warned that it also affects several brain and spinal cord networks. Vitamin B12 depletion, triggered by the substance, can cause neurological problems including paralysis.
Professor Nutt said: ‘The government has taken other factors into account — other than what the evidence says about harms to users — in making this decision.
‘It is not unusual for the government to come to a different view on drugs policy than the ACMD has done – I can’t recall a time they accepted the major recommendation of an ACMD report.’
However, he warned that because the metal canisters containing nitrous oxide are easy to detect as ‘they chink when carried’, people ‘have moved to cylinders that contain much more gas, so dosing is going up’.
He said: ‘This has the potential to cause more harm and if so would be a classic predicted impact of the perverse consequences of banning an innocuous drug potentially leading to greater harms from alternatives.’
Yesterday Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove said the ‘increasing scourge’ of nitrous oxide was turning parks and public spaces into ‘drug-taking arenas’. He said ministers had not yet decided at what drug classification level laughing gas would be set at. But plans released this morning show it would become a Class C, alongside the so-called ‘date rape’ drug GHB, anabolic steroids and the stimulant khat
Meanwhile, the UK-based Drug Science Scientific Committee called the move by the government a ‘same old tired drug policy’.
David Badcock, the organisation’s chief executive, said: ‘I’m very disheartened to hear that the Government now looks like they’re going to ban nitrous oxide, it’s going completely against its own advisory panel and the advice they gave.
‘A blanket ban on nitrous oxide is completely disproportionate to the harms that are caused by nitrous oxide and would likely deliver more harm than good.
He added: ‘The Government should be concentrating on much more serious elements of drug policy that are causing harm, like alcohol for instance.’
Dr David Caldicott, a senior clinical lecturer at the Australian National University medical school, added: ‘From afar, it appears that the announcement by the UK Government is less about “medical concern”, than it is about “social control”.
‘Any drugs policy associated with the term “zero tolerance” should be viewed as being a red flag to the society to which it is being pitched.’
He warned similar drug policies ‘are generally associated with failure at a number of levels’.
He added: ‘In this case, it is difficult to see how such a “zero tolerance” approach will be enforced, and a law that cannot be enforced is not a particularly useful one with which to engage a younger population of consumers.
‘There is always a finite group of consumers of drugs in a society who will, if only for a brief period of time in their lives, choose to consume products that alter their reality.
‘There is no moral valency to this choice – it is simply a fact. There is a clear danger that those whose choice was once nitrous oxide will look elsewhere, to something that is of greater medical concern to healthcare providers.’
In the UK, nitrous oxide is the second most prevalent drug among young adults aged 16 to 24 years, after cannabis, according to the European Union drugs monitoring agency EMCDDA.
Earlier this month, Dr David Nicholl, consultant neurologist and clinical lead at City Hospital in Birmingham, warned nitrous oxide was more dangerous than cocaine and said he now sees more patients struggling with side effects of ‘nos’ than cocaine abuse.
He added the volume youngsters are taking the substance has rocketed since the pandemic, with some children now taking up to 150 canisters a day.
Smaller nitrous oxide canisters – which are legitimately used in the catering industry – have been widely used for recreational drug-taking for at least a decade.
The small, silver cartridges contain four litres of the colourless gas, but the larger types – which cost just £25 – can hold between 322 litres and 5,500 litres.
One in 11 people aged 16 to 24 said they had taken laughing gas in 2019-20, according to the Crime Survey of England and Wales.