Nitrous oxide (N2O) is to become an illegal class C substance by the end of the year, according to an update by the UK Government.
Released on Tuesday (5th September), the newest guidelines reveal that possession of N2O will carry a sentence of up to two years in prison or an unlimited fine, with up to 14 years for supply or production.
The decision comes soon after the government announced plans to ban retail sales of the gas as part of its ‘zero tolerance’ stance on tackling anti-social behaviour associated with abuse of N2O.
Following the ban, a consultation was launched aimed at organisations or individuals that manufacture, sell or use N2O as part of their business.
Exemptions will be made for legitimate uses of the gas, such as in sectors including medical, industrial and catering.
Commonly used to relieve pain during dental procedures and childbirth, N2O is also used as a preservative and propellant in whipped cream canisters.
However, when used recreationally the drug can cause a range of short- and long-term health consequences.
If inhaled in large quantities, it can result in loss of blood pressure, fainting, heart attack or induce hypoxia (lack of oxygen) causing death.
Prolonged exposure could cause memory loss, vitamin B12 depletion, incontinence, weakened immune system, depression and even psychosis.
Having campaigned for retail sales of nitrous oxide to be banned since March 2020, the British Compressed Gases Association (BCGA) commented on the news.
“The latest update from the UK Government on the timetable for a change in the classification of nitrous oxide under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 has now been published,” said David Hurren, President of the BCGA.
“BCGA has been campaigning for legitimate uses of nitrous oxide to be protected, but retail sales of the gas to be banned, since March 2020.
With the BCGA having been mentioned within the Government update, Hurren added, “BCGA is referred to in the document and we look forward to further updates confirming arrangement on how existing legitimate business uses by our members, such as for medical applications, can continue without interruption of interference.”
The government stated that it may also share information with the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to help inform consideration of the appropriate scheduling of the drug.
The ACMD has previously voiced its beliefs that the substance should not be controlled under the Act and that sanctions for the offences would be disproportionate with the level of harm associated with N2O.
Last year, the government requested a review of the gas and its legal status by the ACMD, resulting in the release of a report which states that the existing Psychoactive Substances Act – which limits prison sentence to a maximum of seven years – ‘remains appropriate legislation’.
A recent investigation by Sky News found that there had been a spike in hospital admissions caused by people using the drug recreationally.
A separate study found that N2O is the second most commonly used drug among 16 to 24-year-olds in England after cannabis.
Last month around 12,000 empty N2O canisters were cleared from Notting Hill Carnival, according to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
Empty canisters also present dangers to local waste management services.
Last year, a public campaign was launched by Viridor – operator of the Beddington Energy Recovery Facility – to raise awareness of N2O canisters and their impact on local waste management.
Thousands of highly pressurised creamer canisters arrive at the facility mixed in with household waste. Although many are intercepted, those that are missed can explode when going through the waste treatment process.
“While the plant is designed to safely deal with a wide range of non-recyclable waste, when these canisters are processed, they can explode causing damage,” said Dave O’Callaghan, Plant Manager for Viridor at Beddington.