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By Francesca Gillett
BBC News

Laughing gas will be categorised as a class C drug and made illegal by the end of the year, the UK government has announced.

Possession of nitrous oxide, also known as NOS, will carry a sentence of up to two years in prison.

Laughing gas is one of the most commonly used recreational drugs by 16 to 24-year-olds.

Its use soared during the pandemic, but heavy use can lead to a range of illnesses.

The government initially announced its plan to ban nitrous oxide earlier this year as part of a plan to tackle anti-social behaviour, but on Tuesday set out new details of the implementation of the law change.

It said those found in unlawful possession of the drug could face up to two years in prison or an unlimited fine, with up to 14 years for supply or production.

However, there will be exemptions for legitimate uses of nitrous oxide, for example in medical or catering industries. The gas is commonly used as a painkiller and for producing whipped cream in cooking.

The substance – which is sold in metal canisters – can cause headaches and make some users anxious or paranoid, while too much nitrous oxide can make a person faint or lose consciousness.

Heavy use can lead to nerve-related symptoms – being unable to walk, falling over, or experiencing tingling or loss of sensation in the feet and hands. Some users have nerve-related bladder or bowel problems, erectile dysfunction or incontinence.

Supply of nitrous oxide for recreational use is currently banned – but possession is not.

The government’s decision to make possession a crime goes against recommendations from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which advised against new laws to ban nitrous oxide.

It said a ban would be disproportionate with the amount of harm linked to the gas.

And last week health experts also warned the government against a ban, saying it could stop users seeking medical help.

Announcing the law change on Tuesday, Home Secretary Suella Braverman said people in the UK were “fed up with yobs abusing drugs in public spaces and leaving behind a disgraceful mess for others to clean up”.

“Earlier this year the prime minister and I promised a zero-tolerance approach to antisocial behaviour and that is what we are delivering. If you are caught using laughing gas as a drug, you could be hit with a hefty fine or face jail time.”

The government’s crime and policing minister Chris Philp said: “There is no question that abusing laughing gas is dangerous to people’s health and it is paramount we take decisive action before the situation gets worse.

“Not only are we making possession an offence for the first time, we are also doubling the maximum sentence for supply to 14 years, so the dealers profiting off this trade have no place to hide.”

Nitrous oxide: A pain drug used by teens as a high

Laughing gas joins drugs including diazepam, GHB and GBL under the class C categorisation.

The ban is being issued under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which regulates drugs in the UK based on their perceived harm and potential for misuse.

It is already illegal to produce or supply laughing gas for its psychoactive effects under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. That law makes production, supply and importation of nitrous oxide for human consumption illegal, but not possession.

Between 2001 and 2020, there were 56 registered deaths involving nitrous oxide in England and Wales – 45 of them since 2010, according to the government report.

Prof David Nutt, from Imperial College London’s department of medicine, previously said there was around about death per year in the UK from around one million nitrous oxide users. “A comparison with alcohol would be that around 28,000 deaths happen per year in around 40 million users of alcohol,” he added.

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