Nitrous oxide ownership to be illegal in UK

The new law being passed aims to make possession of nitrous oxide illegal
31 March 2023

Interview with 

David Nutt, Imperial College London




A new law has been proposed by the government this week to criminalise the possession of the painkilling anaesthetic nitrous oxide - or laughing gas. The agent is used safely worldwide, including in delivery units, but in recent years it’s become increasingly popular among young people who use it recreationally, inhaling it from balloons and small metal canisters called “whippets”. A recent study suggests that up to 10% of teenagers have used it. This new legislation is part of the government’s plans to clamp down on anti-social behaviour, with Home Secretary Suella Braverman calling for an end to ‘hordes of youths loitering in and littering parks with empty canisters.’ Critics of the ban say pressing criminal charges against users of nitrous oxide would be disproportionate, won’t stop people using it, and would fly in the face of effective ways of reducing harm from drugs. James Tytko spoke with David Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London and a former UK government “drug tsar”...

David - Nitrous oxide is one of the great British inventions popularized by Humphrey Davy, the president of the Royal Society. He thought it was an amazing tool for exploring the brain. In fact, he went from being a chemist to being a philosopher overnight after having experienced nitrous oxide. He decided to set up a whole new branch of science called chemical philosophy. And then it was renamed laughing gas because it disinhibited people. And actually the most beautiful description of nitrous oxide came from the poet Southey who took it. And he said, wow. Well, he may not have said wow, but he said, this is the atmosphere of heaven.

James - That was gonna be my next question. I suppose that's a poetic description of its effects. But if we were to put our scientific hats on a bit more, how would you describe what laughing gas or nitrous oxide actually does to the consumer?

David - Well, it produces a very rapid and very transient alteration and consciousness with a lifting of tension, a lifting of inhibitions. The reason it's called laughing gas is because people laugh because they suddenly discover they can be free from all the burdens that their mind has been churning through over the previous hours, days, decades. We don't know exactly how it works in the brain. It produces very profound changes in blood flow. My own belief is that it changes blood flow, particularly in the default mode network, particularly in the posterior cingulate cortex, which is the area of the brain which coordinates all your appropriate perception, your senses, your vision, your taste, your hearing, et cetera. And that's where your sense of self is encoded. But it is very short lasting and within a minute of inhaling a balloon, you're back to normal. I mean, I think we should also point out that between nitrous oxide being used to explore consciousness, it also turned out to be a rather useful anesthetic. It's widely used around the world. Most women have experienced nitrous oxide cuz it's used to help them deal with the pain of childbirth. And I've certainly had it when I broke my wrist to help the bones be reset. So it's a really useful anesthetic because it's so short acting. And that's why we know it's safe. I mean it wouldn't have been in medicine for nearly 200 years if it wasn't safe.

James - So in what circumstances can laughing gas actually be harmful?

David - Well, the biggest danger I always say using gas from a balloon is you inhale the balloon and choke. In terms of death, it's extraordinarily rare. I mean maybe one death in the last 20 years from nitrous oxide, which you compare with hundreds of thousands of deaths through alcohol. So it's way, way, way less harmful. But it does have harms. The harms are dose related. And actually the current policy on controlling nitrous oxide actually enhanced the harm because originally nitrous oxide was taken from little canisters called whippets. The instigation of this law. And in fact an attempt to stop people using whippets was brought in when nitrous oxide was controlled under the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act. And what happened was that people switched from the whippets, which clink around in your pockets, so that the police know you had them, to canisters, which are much easier to hide. They don't make a noise, it's just one of them. And the problem is canisters contain so much more nitrous oxide than whippets. So we've actually increased the amount of nitrous oxide that people are taking. And that is leading to this increased frequency of people getting nerve paralysis. We know it's due to a deficiency of vitamin b12, we know it's transient, but it is obviously very disturbing when it happens. But we didn't have it in the old days when people were using just one or two balloons.

James - Yeah, it's interesting to think when you were giving us that brief history before, there was once this mind expanding substance useful in philosophical and academic pursuits and now it's known as a drug of choice for antisocial use that the banning of which might be a vote winner. Is that your take?

David - Absolutely. This is just politically driven. This is just part of the hate model of this current government. Find people that you can get the voters to hate and then they'll hate them and vote for you. It's just a little, a kind of minor low, level repetition of the Nixon war on drugs which got him elected.

James - They'll probably push back on that and say there are people who are actually quite sick and tired of their neighborhoods littered with these canisters.

David - So what happens if the policeman comes along and sees someone in a park and there are whippets on the floor? They say, are those your whippets? And the person will say 'of course not.' And they cannot test if the gas has been used because it disappears in a minute. So I can't see how they could prosecute anyone for use. If they found a whippet in your pocket, yes they could prosecute you, but what an utter waste of police time and money. And let's be clear about this. Most antisocial behavior is driven by alcohol. Most waste in parks is bottles and cans. People are focusing on nitrous oxide simply because they don't understand it.



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