One of Britain’s leading neurologists has urged the government to make nitrous oxide—sometimes known as “laughing gas”—a banned substance, but has warned of the danger of “criminalising” teenagers.
In 2021 the Home Office asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to consider whether to make possession of nitrous oxide a crime, but they are still awaiting a recommendation.
Dr. David Nicholl, the clinical lead for neurology at Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust, told The Epoch Times: “I don’t know what they’re waiting for. This problem is getting worse.”
He said: “Nitrous oxide has been around since the 19th century and 10–15 years ago the main people abusing it were doctors and dentists. But something has changed since the pandemic. The volume has changed.”
Nitrous oxide is a gas that is often sold in small silver canisters, which are then squirted into balloons and then inhaled.
Nicholl said: “It gives a feeling of light-headedness, there’s a loss of inhibition, and there can be giggling associated with it. But the effect wears off quite quickly, so they have to ‘balloon’ again.”
He also said he understood nitrous oxide was popular with Muslim youths because it gave an effect similar to alcohol, but was not specifically forbidden by their religion.
‘Some Muslim Youths Are Attracted to It’
“Some Muslim youths are attracted to it because it’s not alcohol and there is no smell. I am meeting with a mosque to explain the issue to them and I know there is some really good work being done by Muslim charities,” Nicholl said.
Last month the charity Dawat-e-Islami held two events in the West Midlands to warn about nitrous oxide.
But he said the term “laughing gas” trivialised the danger, and he said: “There is no such thing as a safe dose. It is not meant for human consumption.”
Nicholl explained the medical risk: “It can lead to hypoxia. We have seen people die as a result. Another patient went blind. More commonly patients present with neuropathy—a tingling in the arms or legs—or even difficulty walking.”
He said it also creates a deficiency of vitamin B12, which can affect the spinal cord.
On Wednesday the Communities Secretary Michael Gove made a speech in which he promised the government would “tackle public drug-taking, including the use of nitrous oxide.”
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also highlighted the issue in a speech earlier this month, when he criticised anti-social behaviour and “nitrous oxide canisters in children’s playgrounds.”
According to the Office for National Statistics, there were 36 deaths in Great Britain associated with nitrous oxide between 2001 and 2016.
But Nicholl said the number of young people using it has risen massively since the pandemic and he said he was now treating several patients a week.
‘Focus on the Illegal Suppliers’
He said: “It’s a real challenge, and it’s encouraging that the government is taking an interest in this but we need to focus on the illegal suppliers, rather than the users. We don’t want to send teenagers to prison for two years for possessing nitrous oxide.”
Nicholl, who has posted a video on TikTok to warn of the dangers, said nitrous oxide was being sold “under the counter” at a number of shops in the West Midlands.
Since 2016 it has been illegal, under the Psychoactive Substances Act, to “knowingly or recklessly supply nitrous oxide for inhalation” and there is a maximum sentence of seven years in jail.
But it is currently not a crime to possess the gas, which is used in both medicine and catering.
Nicholl said he was not aware of anybody having been prosecuted under the 2016 legislation.
When mixed with oxygen, as Entonox, it is used as a mild anaesthetic for women in labour, and it is also needed to produce whipped cream in restaurant kitchens and canteens.
A Home Office spokesman said: “Anti-social behaviour causes misery in communities and we are determined to crack down on this scourge to protect our streets. Nitrous oxide is one of the most commonly-used drugs among 16- to 24-year-olds in England and can have damaging side-effects.”
He said: “We have been clear we want to see common-sense policing to keep our communities safe. That is why we are actively considering a ban on the sale and use of this harmful drug and will ask the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to hasten their delivery of the report we commissioned, which we will carefully consider in reaching any decision.”
PA Media contributed to this report.