The government’s ban on nitrous oxide comes into force today (Wednesday 8th November, 2023) and possession of the drug is now a criminal act in the United Kingdom.
Drug Science’s founder, Professor David Nutt, says:
“We believe the ban is wrong. It is completely disproportionate to nitrous oxide’s harms. It will place a new burden on an already overstretched criminal justice system. And it risks causing lasting problems in the lives of young people, by needlessly criminalising them.”
In fact, the government’s own experts agree that the drug should not have been banned. After two reviews of nitrous oxide, the Advisory Council On the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) concluded that nitrous oxide should not be controlled under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act,1 also stating that ‘scare tactics’ should not be used to address the drug’s recreational use. And as part of its reviews, the council suggested the use of local court orders to address litter issues — as some users discard the small metal canisters in which nitrous oxide can be purchased.
It could be that this litter — a visible sign of nitrous oxide use — is a main reason for today’s ban and, possibly, why the government’s narrative on the drug has shifted somewhat from ‘drug harms’ to ‘antisocial behaviour’ in recent months. Therefore, removing the litter could be seen as ‘doing something about drugs’.
But for clarity, it won’t. And what’s more, seeing the experts at the ACMD sidelined by the government deeply concerns us. We’re also concerned that little government research has been conducted into the lasting effects of such criminalisation — especially on young people and already marginalised groups — as in itself this can be a leading driver of addiction and substance misuse problems.2
Over the past 20 years around two deaths per year have been reported as involving nitrous oxide,3 whereas thousands of deaths are reported for alcohol.4 And while deaths related to the use of cocaine, fentanyl and heroin have thankfully begun to dip from recent record levels, the number of people losing their lives to these drugs remains shocking.5,6
These are the real and pressing problems the UK faces with drugs. The way to address them is by following the evidence and building policy on facts. And we call on ministers — and successive governments — to do so.
1 Nitrous Oxide, updated harms assessment, ACMD/ UK Gov 2023.
2 Poverty and Marginalistion remain key factors for substance use. United Nations, 2022..
3 Drug-related deaths involving nitrous oxide, 1993-2016, Office for National Statistics.
4 Alcohol-specific deaths in the UK statistical bulletin, Office for National Statistics.
5 Suspected drug deaths in Scotland: April to June 2023, Scottish Gov.
6 Deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales, 2021 registrations (latest), UK Gov 2023.