UK to Ban Laughing Gas in “Anti-Social Behavior” Crackdown

March 30, 2023

The United Kingdom has unveiled an “Anti-Social Behaviour Action Plan” targeting people who use drugs, especially those who have criminal records or are otherwise already vulnerable to state violence. The new plan, published March 27, will ban nitrous oxide; increase the scope of mandatory drug-testing; and facilitate evictions of “anti-social tenants.”

Nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas or whippits, will now be scheduled as a Class C substance per the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971. This places it under the same criminal penalties as GHB, anabolic steroids and some benzodiazepines, which include punishing personal use with up to two years in prison.

“We will ban nitrous oxide, also called laughing gas, putting an end to litter and intimidation in our parks.”

Nitrous oxide is commonly used by young people in the UK club scene, many whom also use MDMA and other nightlife drugs. In recent years it’s become increasingly popular, and with it complaints about discarded canisters. As the Conservative government grasps for ways to criminalize minority groups and appeal to “tough on crime” voters—and ultimately distract from the ongoing fallout of Brexit, as the cost of living soars into the stratosphere—nitrous oxide has emerged as a convenient scapegoat.

“We will ban nitrous oxide, also called laughing gas, putting an end to litter and intimidation in our parks so people feel safer,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stated in a press release.

“The police will also now be able to drug test criminals who take illegal drugs like ecstasy and methamphetamine, and we will drug test offenders who have committed a wider range of crimes, like violence against women and girls, serious violence and anti-social behavior.”

The term “anti-social behavior” is used to target people for engaging in a range of activities including drug use, sex work and panhandling. And littering, such as by discarding the single-use metal canisters in which nitrous oxide is often distributed.

The ban promotes a false narrative similar to one wielded against syringe service programs in the United States and elsewhere: that drug users are responsible for a “litter” scourge and are making public spaces unsafe for people—while somehow not counting as people themselves, since what the government describes will certainly increase intimidation in parks for them.

The plan comes one week after the government won a long battle to suppress a report recommending decriminalization.

The new plan goes against the recommendation of the government’s own Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), which found that nitrous oxide was not linked to “anti-social behavior.” The ACMD advised the government to keep the drug as it’s currently regulated under the Psychoactive Substances Act of 2016, which does not criminalize possession for personal use.

The plan also comes one week after the government won a three-year battle to suppress an ACMD report that recommended it decriminalize possession of controlled substances. It is the first ACMD report to not be released to the public.

The most widely used pretext for law enforcement to stop and search people in the UK is suspected possession of drugs. The Metropolitan Police of Greater London and other UK police forces are notoriously racist, misogynistic and homophobic institutions; giving officers more power to stop and search people for nitrous oxide canisters provides a new pretext to drug-test marginalized people for other substances and disenfranchise them from housing.

“We are aiming to make it quicker for private landlords to evict anti-social tenants [and] strengthen rules so previous anti-social behavior perpetrators are deprioritized for new council housing,” Sunak continued. “By establishing a zero-tolerance approach … we can prevent more of these crimes from happening in the first place [and ensure] these will be quickly and visibly punished.”



Photograph via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0

Felipe Neis Araujo

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.

Disqus Comments Loading...