The United Kingdom is no stranger to evolving legislation surrounding psychoactive substances. Nitrous oxide, often referred to as “laughing gas” or “nos,” is a colourless, sweet-smelling gas commonly used for dental procedures, whipped cream dispensers, and even in the automotive industry.
While it is generally considered safe when administered by healthcare professionals, recreational use of nitrous oxide, particularly long-term, poses significant health risks. The latest change is in the classification of nitrous oxide as a Class C substance as of November 8th, 2023.
This marks a significant shift in its legal status and the potential consequences for those who use or distribute it. The government’s decision to reclassify nitrous oxide is based on a growing concern about its misuse and the associated risks. In this article, we’ll take a look at the implications of this change.
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The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971: A New Class for Nitrous Oxide
The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 has been a cornerstone of drug policy in the UK, categorising various substances into three classes: A, B, and C. Class A includes the most dangerous drugs, Class B encompasses substances with moderate risks, and Class C typically includes drugs with lower potential for harm.
A quick search online shows that despite this change, nitrous oxide is still easy to purchase online. Sold in the form of food-grade nitrous oxide cream whipper chargers, which are designed to be used with a whipper for aerating foams and creams for making whipped cream, purees, and puddings, these small canisters are commonly used for recreational purposes.
Discussing the potential impacts of nitrous oxide use, Daniell Byatt, Treatment Director at Step by Step Recovery, a residential rehab facility in Essex, highlights the importance of this reclassification.
“Nitrous oxide use has become increasingly popular as users wrongly think it is risk free as it is easy to purchase online, and doesn’t cause severe withdrawal symptoms or cravings. However, the lack of awareness regarding the inherent risks to mental and long-term physical well-being is a critical concern. We have seen an increasing number of users come to our rehab for treatment for psychological addiction and dependence. This issue is particularly significant in light of the recent change in UK law classifying nitrous oxide as a Class C substance.”
So, what does this change actually mean?
Fundamentally, the classification of nitrous oxide as a Class C substance simply means it is a criminal offence to be in possession of it, except for legitimate purposes, such as for use in cooking. By reclassifying nitrous oxide, possessing it with the intent of inhaling it for psychoactive effects or recreational purposes will now constitute a criminal offence.
This change is designed to stop the use of nitrous oxide balloons for recreational use, especially at clubs and festivals. Critically, the new classification now gives the police the power to arrest someone who has nitrous oxide without a legitimate reason or who is using it recreationally.
The reclassification of nitrous oxide carries significant legal implications. Possession, use, or distribution of nitrous oxide may now result in criminal charges and penalties. Users could face up to two years in prison, while those found selling the substance could be sentenced to much longer terms, up to 14 years.
Risk of Death from Using Nitrous Oxide
The immediate effects of nitrous oxide inhalation are of short duration, so many users will continue to use it to extend its effects. This type of excessive use of nitrous oxide can lead to respiratory depression and unconsciousness, which, in extreme cases, can result in death.
Furthermore, inhaling nitrous oxide from balloons can be dangerous due to the risk of asphyxiation. When a balloon filled with gas is placed over the nose and mouth, it can displace oxygen, potentially leading to oxygen deprivation, loss of consciousness, and death.
Long-Term Health Risks of Using Nitrous Oxide
It is crucial to be aware of the potential consequences, especially when nitrous oxide is used recreationally. While nitrous oxide may seem harmless due to the fact it is not physiologically addictive, the risk of psychological addiction and dependence should not be underestimated.
Tolerance to nitrous oxide can occur very quickly and this means more will be required to achieve similar sensations to the ones felt when it was initially used. When combined with regular use, this poses severe long-term health risks.
Below are the main risks to health that can result from regular use of nitrous oxide:
Vitamin B12 deficiency: One of the most significant dangers associated with nitrous oxide inhalation is the development of a vitamin B12 deficiency. The gas interferes with the body’s ability to absorb this crucial vitamin, which is essential for nerve function and the production of red blood cells. Over time, vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to anaemia, neuropathy, and neurological (brain) damage, which may be irreversible.
Nerve damage: Prolonged use of nitrous oxide can result in peripheral neuropathy, a condition that affects the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms may include numbness, tingling, and muscle weakness. In severe cases, this condition can lead to paralysis and difficulty performing fine motor tasks.
Damage to teeth: Frequent nitrous oxide inhalation can have detrimental effects on dental health. The gas is acidic and can erode tooth enamel, leading to tooth decay and loss of teeth, as well as other oral health issues.
Cognitive impairment: Research has shown that excessive nitrous oxide use can impair cognitive function and memory. Chronic users may experience difficulties with concentration, problem-solving, and information retention, which can significantly impact their daily lives.
Psychiatric disorders: Long-term use of nitrous oxide has been linked to the development of psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, and even psychosis. While the mechanisms behind these associations are not yet fully understood, it is clear that the mental health consequences of nitrous oxide inhalation can be severe.
Take Away: Reclassification of Nitrous Oxide to a Class C Substance
The change in UK law for the classification of nitrous oxide as a Class C substance means that if you use nitrous oxide recreationally or supply it for recreational use, you are now at risk of arrest and prosecution. The extent to which this will be carried out is yet to be seen. However, it is highly likely that the police will be looking for evidence of nitrous oxide use in clubs and festivals, as well as in public places, such as parks.