As of 8 November 2023, nitrous oxide, or ‘laughing gas’, is classified as a Class C drug, marking a key change to how possessing this psychoactive substance is treated in law.

This Insight explains what nitrous oxide is and how its use is now controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

What is nitrous oxide?

Nitrous oxide is a colourless gas. It is often referred to as ‘laughing gas’ because it can give those who inhale it a euphoric mood. In human and veterinary medicine it is used with oxygen (‘gas and air’) as an anaesthesia due to its pain-relieving effects.

As of 8 November 2023, it is illegal to possess, supply, import, export or produce nitrous oxide outside of its intended purposes (for example, in a healthcare setting).

Nitrous oxide as a recreational drug

Recreational users typically inhale nitrous oxide from a balloon inflated with the gas or from a canister, both of which carry health risks.

The Government-funded drugs advice service FRANK says that inhaling nitrous oxide directly from the canister is “very dangerous” as the gas is under high pressure and extremely cold. It warns: “This can damage your throat and lungs, stop you breathing or slow your heart to a dangerous level.”

FRANK also says that nitrous oxide can cause:

  • severe headache
  • dizziness
  • sound distortions and hallucinations and can stop people from thinking straight
  • short-lived but intense feelings of paranoia.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) advises the government on the control of dangerous drugs. It says that long-term use of nitrous oxide can lead to vitamin B12 deficiency. In severe cases, a B12 deficiency can lead to neurological changes.

In 2022, doctors warned that they were seeing a rise in neurological complications (for example nerve damage) among young people because of nitrous oxide use. Doctors have suggested that this is linked to people using larger canisters of the gas.

Legitimate uses of nitrous oxide

Apart from being used as an anaesthesia, legitimate uses of nitrous oxide listed by the government include using it as an additive to fuel or food (such as a propellant for whipped cream) and in industrial and manufacturing processes.

Why and how has the law changed?

As of 8 November 2023, nitrous oxide is classified as a Class C drug controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. It follows a pledge to do so in the government’s Anti-Social Behaviour Action Plan published in March 2023.

Nitrous oxide was previously treated as a “psychoactive substance” under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. Under the 2016 Act, producing, supplying and importing or exporting nitrous oxide for human consumption was illegal. Possession in custodial institutions (such as prisons) was also an offence. However, it was not illegal to possess nitrous oxide outside a custodial institution unless it was with intent to supply; this is now illegal, marking a key change under the new legislation.

Exemptions for legitimate uses of nitrous oxide are set out in the regulations that amend the Misuse of Drugs Act. These exemptions apply unless a person “intends to wrongly inhale it” or “knows, or is reckless as to whether it is likely to be wrongfully inhaled by some other person”.

Consequences for breaching the law could include:

  • an unlimited fine
  • a visible community punishment
  • a caution
  • a prison sentence for repeat serious offenders.

Concerns over consultation  

In 2021, the government commissioned the ACMD to assess the harms of nitrous oxide, the findings of which were published in March 2023.

When outlining the harms of the recreational use of nitrous oxide, the ACMD concluded that nitrous oxide’s current status under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 was appropriate.

Despite this, the government announced its decision to bring forward legislation to control nitrous oxide under the 1971 Act due to the “reported recent rise in health and social harms” as well as “the widespread use and availability of the drug particularly amongst children and young people”.

The House of Lords Secondary Legislation Committee has criticised the lack of public consultation regarding this reclassification, which the Home Office said was done because it was already “minded to introduce the ban”.

The committee has, however, acknowledged that a public consultation was run regarding the legitimate uses of nitrous oxide, designed to “understand the full range and scale of legitimate uses” of the substance to “enable the design of a legal framework”.

How common is recreational use?

Prevalence of nitrous oxide use is estimated from the Crime Survey for England and Wales which asks participants, among other things, if they have used controlled substances in the last year (or ever in their life). Data for 2021/22 shows that 1.3% of adults aged 16 to 59 had used nitrous oxide in the previous 12 months (approximately 444,000 people) in England and Wales. This is a fall from 2.4% (781,000) in 2019/20.

Nitrous oxide use is more common among young people, but their usage has also fallen. In 2021/22, around 3.9% of those aged 16 to 24 used nitrous oxide, down from 8.7% in 2019/20.

Prevalence of nitrous oxide use on the past 12 months

England and Wales

  Age 16 to 59   Age 16 to 24
Year Percentage Estimated number   Percentage Estimated number
2012/13 2.0% 641,000   6.1% 381,000
2013/14 2.3% 752,000   7.6% 503,000
2016/17 2.4% 819,000   9.0% 583,000
2018/19 2.3% 763,000   8.7% 552,000
2019/20 2.4% 781,000   8.7% 516,000
2021/22 1.3% 444,000   3.9% 230,000

Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that there were 40 deaths between 2011 and 2020 involving nitrous oxide in England and Wales, up from 16 between 2001 and 2010. The annual number of deaths is too small to identify a year-on-year trend.

About the authors: Elizabeth Rough is a medical and health specialist at the House of Commons Library. Lulu Meade is a Library researcher specialising in home affairs. Carl Baker is a Library statistician specialising in health and geography.

Image by GreenZeb is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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