A new law set to put an end to the recreational use of nitrous oxide and other ‘legal highs’ comes into effect in the UK today.

The Psychoactive Substances (NPS) Act 2016, introduced by the Home Office, outlaws the supply of so-called ‘legal highs’. It will protect young people by banning any production, supply and importation or exportation for human consumption of these potentially dangerous drugs, linked to the deaths of 144 people in the UK in 2014 alone.

The act provides a range of criminal and civil sanctions including new powers for police and tough sentences of up to seven years for offenders.

The UK will be the first country in the world to put in place a rigorous system of testing to demonstrate that a substance is capable of having a psychoactive effect, and the British Compressed Gases Association (BCGA) has welcomed the introduction of the Act.

Nitrous oxide has seen a particular upsurge in recreational use and has been ‘purposely addressed and covered’ by the Act, with the new law introduced in time for this year’s ‘festival season’. The BCGA hopes the Police and Courts will use the legislation to help put an end to recreational nitrous oxide inhalation and Doug Thornton (pictured), Chief Executive, said, “Nitrous Oxide abuse has gone on since Victorian times, facilitated, in the upper classes, by physicians and dentists, who could access the gas.”

“However, its abuse has increased significantly in recent years, to the point where the Home Office ranks it as the second-most prevalent recreational substance in the UK, after cannabis. And these days the endorsement of its inhalation comes not from medics, but from celebrity footballers and film and TV stars who allow themselves to be seen inhaling the gas.”

doug thornton bcga

Source: BCGA

“A popular misconception is that it must be safe to inhale, because it is used as a medical gas in dentistry, midwifery – where it is always used in conjunction with oxygen and under qualified medical supervision,” he added. “Perhaps the name ‘Laughing Gas’ suggests it is fun to inhale and trivialises its risks, but it is absolutely not safe to inhale casually and there have been too many deaths resultant from its abuse. It is often seen on sale at festivals, raves, in clubs and on city centre streets, with Police, so far, somewhat powerless to intervene.”

“[The] BCGA’s mission is to ensure safety in the use, storage, transportation and handling of compressed gases and we therefore wholeheartedly welcome the New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) law”

“[The] BCGA’s mission is to ensure safety in the use, storage, transportation and handling of compressed gases and we therefore wholeheartedly welcome the New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) law.”

The Act affirms that ‘laughing gas’ really is no laughing matter. Karen Bradley, Minister for Preventing Abuse, Exploitation and Crime, had earlier agreed, “Psychoactive substances shatter lives and we owe it to all those who have lost loved ones to do everything we can to eradicate this abhorrent trade.”

“This act will bring to an end the open sale on our high streets of these potentially harmful drugs and deliver new powers for law enforcement to tackle this issue at every level in communities, at our borders, on UK websites and in our prisons. The message is clear – so-called ‘legal highs’ are not safe. This act will ban their sale and ensure unscrupulous traders who profit from them face up to seven years in prison.”

Three-fold harm

Thornton underlined the harm from recreational nitrous oxide inhalation as being three-fold, first being the potential function impairment, secondly the irreversible damage caused by repeated use, and thirdly as a motivation for crime as users seek to repeat the high and ‘feed the habit’.

He explained, “The ‘drunken’ state which it induces clearly puts users at all manner of risks, with their judgement, thinking and motor functions impaired. The most obvious risk is immediate death by simple asphyxiation if users inhale too much, but before that, the ‘Hypoxic’ (partial starvation of oxygen to the brain) condition which induces the euphoric feeling, can also cause heart arrest. Many of the deaths have occurred this way.”

“Long term/repeated use can interfere with some complex biochemistry in the body to effect irreversible damage to the brain, central nervous system and liver.”

“The other harm,” he continued, “is in the motivation of crime. Whilst academics might debate whether the gas is chemically addictive, users certainly form a strong habit and compulsion to repeat the ‘high’. This, of course, leads to the usual problems, which go with all substance abuse, of crime by the user to feed the habit, as well as organised crime in stealing the gas to supply in this area.”



Sanctions under the act include:

  • Up to seven years in prison for the supply, production, possession with intent to supply, importation or exportation of a psychoactive substance for human consumption
  • Up to two years in prison for possessing a psychoactive substance in a custodial institution
  • Prohibition and premises orders, which will allow police to shutdown head shops and online dealers in the UK, with up to two years in prison for those who fail to comply
  • Police powers to seize and destroy psychoactive substances, search people, premises and vehicles, and to search premises by warrant if necessary.