UK to Criminalize Possession of Laughing Gas by End of 2023

    The United Kingdom will ban nitrous oxide, AKA laughing gas, by the end of 2023, scheduling it as a Class C substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. In addition to criminalizing possession, the change will increase penalties for “possession with intention to supply.” It goes against the recommendation of the government’s own advisory council.

    According to a government Impact Assessment signed September 4, people found in possession of nitrous oxide for personal use can face up to two years in prison, an unlimited fine or both. Possession with intention to supply, which includes both selling and sharing, is punishable by up to 14 years of imprisonment, an unlimited fine or both.   

    “Unlimited fine” is an ominous-sounding yet familiar part of UK drug penalties. Unlimited fines can be issued for driving under the influence, or even driving without insurance. The new laughing gas penalties are in line with those for other Class C substances.

    The council concluded that the “health and social harms of nitrous oxide are not commensurate with control under the Misuse of Drugs Act.” 

    The UK government announced its intention to ban nitrous oxide in March. Shortly before the initial announcement, the government had rushed its Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to finish a report on use of laughing gas. However, the report could not corroborate the purported link between nitrous oxide and serious health harms or “anti-social behavior.” It concluded that “current evidence suggests that the health and social harms of nitrous oxide are not commensurate with control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.” 

    On August 11, ACMD leadership issued a letter reaffirming that the council’s stance is that the “health and social harms of nitrous oxide [are] lower than other drugs with legitimate uses which are enabled by the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001.”

    Drug warriors have not been interested in such findings.

    “The British people are fed up with yobs abusing drugs in public spaces and leaving behind a disgraceful mess for others to clean up,” stated Home Secretary Suella Braverman. “Earlier this year the prime minister and I promised a zero-tolerance approach to antisocial behaviour and that is what we are delivering.”

    Politicians are promising that increased police funding to patrol “hotspots” will resolve the so-called problem.

    Braverman is known for a “tough-on-crime” stance, celebrating arrests and drug seizures and campaigning to punish “anti-social behavior.” During a Parliamentary Session in March, she rejected the ACMD report’s findings, stating that the government is “entitled to take into consideration other relevant factors, particularly the emerging evidence that it does cause serious harm to health and well being.” She did not provide any substantive evidence to support that claim.

    Braverman is among those promising that increased police funding to patrol “hotspots” will resolve the so-called problem, along with expanding police officers’ authority to drug-test suspects. This move toward more state violence will inevitably fuel structural racism, misogyny and homophobia. Expanding police power to stop and frisk will only serve to criminalize communities of color and obstruct their access to decent work and housing.

    A 2021 report by the Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services explicitly warned about the racial bias embedded in stop and search practices, citing how “disproportionate use of powers … may lead to more Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people being drawn into the criminal justice system.”



    Photograph via Rob Bruer/Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Felipe is a Brazilian anthropologist. He’s a criminology lecturer at the University of Manchester, where he researches drug policy, state violence, structural racism and reparations for historical inequalities. He lives in London.

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