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Nitrous oxide - 'laughing gas' becomes class C drug

View profile for Martin Pizzey
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Nitrous oxide - laughing gas becomes class C drug

The government has declared nitrous oxide (also known as laughing gas) is to become a controlled drug of class C from the 8th November 2023. Penalties for its possession can be up to 2 years imprisonment and supplying it can carry up to 14 years imprisonment. The law will come into effect by changes to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is over 50 years old. However, over the last five decades it has been amended and updated to deal with changes in society and the drugs scene. The first section of the Act refers to the creation of an Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.  This body has a duty to continuously review the situation in the United Kingdom for drugs which are being, or appear to be, misused. As society changes, and with it understanding of the dangers substances can pose, so does the Act. For example, though Ecstasy has been around since the early part of the 1900’s it was only added to the list of controlled drugs in 1977. The list of what constitutes a controlled drug is contained in schedule 2 of the Act and classifies the drugs as being Class A, B or C. The most dangerous drugs being of Class A such as heroin and cocaine.

Most will be familiar with the many small aluminium cannisters scattered on the ground left by those who have been inhaling nitrous oxide.   It is consumed to achieve a euphoric and hallucinogenic feeling and effect. The substance was discovered in the 1700’s, but its recent rise in popularity amongst those inclined to seek the highs it apparently offers has caused the Advisory Council to take a careful look at it over the last few years.  In March 2023 it reported its concerns. The serious downside of its use is now recognised with statistics showing deaths and poisonings, together with harmful consequences to the neurological, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems. The government has now acted upon the recommendation to make the substance a controlled drug. 

What may be problematic will be the positive and legitimate uses the gas has. This includes for example its use in making whipping cream. The law will not be intended to prevent shops from selling to those intent on making a huge Victoria sponge over the weekend. What might be expected is a common-sense approach where shops will not be able to turn a blind eye to someone trying to buy a large number of cannisters without real explanation. It will remain to be seen how the police and ultimately the court will respond to the changes. 

Possession and supply offences will be matters that can be dealt with by both Magistrates’ Courts and the Crown Court. The maximum penalty for possession will be 3 month prison in the Magistrates’ court and 2 years in the Crown Court. Penalties for supply are much more severe.

At Stephensons, our criminal defence team have a combined 150 years of experience of successfully representing people facing criminal charges. If you do require assistance, please do not hesitate to contact a member of the department on 0161 696 6188 or complete an online enquiry form.