Laughing gas ban: Our children must be told that this drug can kill them and lead to criminal record

Children as young as eight are using laughing gas - changes in the law are welcome but young people must also be educated about the risk of death and that nitrous oxcide will leave them with a criminal record

Capsules of nitrous oxide, also called "laughing gas", are dangerous even though young people are often oblivious to the threat it poses. (Photo by DENIS CHARLET/AFP via Getty Images)Capsules of nitrous oxide, also called "laughing gas", are dangerous even though young people are often oblivious to the threat it poses. (Photo by DENIS CHARLET/AFP via Getty Images)
Capsules of nitrous oxide, also called "laughing gas", are dangerous even though young people are often oblivious to the threat it poses. (Photo by DENIS CHARLET/AFP via Getty Images)

I work with children and young people every day and am only too aware how easily they can get hold of and misuse nitrous oxcide - known to most as laughing gas. This is a drug which is hugely popular with under 24s. I know boys and girls as young as eight who use it - completely unaware that it could kill them. I, and many others, have serious concerns at the easy accessibility and misuse of laughing gas, which is seen by some children as a substance to experiment with and wrongfully considered by them as causing no harm. When the law tightens around the drug, we must also raise awareness of the dangers of its use and not solely focus on how it can lead to anti-social behaviour.

Nitros Oxcide will become a controlled Class C drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) from November 8. The penalties for breaches the Home Office assert, include serial users facing up to two years in prison, with the maximum sentence for dealers being doubled to 14 years. Those caught with nitrous oxcide and having intent to wrongfully inhale it in order to get high, will now face an unlimited fine, a caution or a “ visible” community punishment that would go on their criminal record 

Whilst nitrous oxcide has been identified as fuelling anti-social behaviours such as 'littering from empty canisters' and 'intimidating gatherings' - which ministers assert urgently need dealing with to protect the public. That might be their driving force to change the law but that is not the full story. There are also serious public health considerations in taking nitrous oxcide and those using this substance exposing themselves to significant health risks. 

Nitrous Oxcide is the second most commonly used drug among the 16-24 year old population in England, second only to cannabis. In my work I have become aware of children as young as 8 years of age using what can be this lethal drug. Inhaling nitrous oxide produces a rapid and short lived rush of euphoria, happiness or excitement but it can also kill. While the primary emphasis in this development by government has been on reducing antisocial behaviours, vulnerable groupings need protecting from the harm this drug can and does do. Young people need protecting through the urgent rollout out of a concerted campaign of public health awareness. The health and safety of children in any and all drug reduction initiatives should be paramount across the UK and throughout the world. 

Potential negative effects of laughing gas:

  • dissociation of the mind from the body (a sense of floating)
  • changes in thoughts, feelings and perceptions
  • visual and auditory hallucinations (more likely to occur when mixed with other drugs).

It can also result in injury including:

  • If inhaling directly from tanks or crackers (a handheld device used to ‘crack’ a nitrous oxide bulb/whippet), the gas is intensely cold (minus 40 degrees Celsius) and can cause frostbite to the nose, lips and throat (including vocal cords).
  • As the gas is also under constant pressure, it can cause ruptures in lung tissue when inhaled directly from these containers.
  • Faulty gas dispensers can explode and cause harm.
  • Dispensing several gas canisters consecutively with one cracker can also cause cold burns to the hands.

Combining nitrous oxide with stimulants and other drugs can place additional pressure on the heart, increase blood pressure and disrupt heart rate. Mixing nitrous oxide with other drugs such as cannabis, ketamine, LSD, magic mushrooms (psylocibin) and salvia can cause more intense dissociation and visual or auditory hallucinations. Taking nitrous oxide while drinking can also increase nausea and dizziness, and may result in vomiting. Risks of overdosing are high.  

Signs of overdose can include:

  • loss of consciousness caused by a fall in blood pressure, or asphyxia (when the body is deprived of oxygen)
  • irregular heartbeat
  • seizures.

Regular use or prolonged may result in:

  • memory loss
  • vitamin B12 depletion (long-term depletion causes brain and nerve damage)
  • ringing or buzzing in the ears
  • incontinence
  • numbness in the hands or feet
  • limb spasms
  • potential birth defects (if used during pregnancy)
  • weakened immune system
  • disruption to reproductive systems
  • depression
  • psychological dependence
  • psychosis.

Laughing gas will still be readily available for legitimate reasons such as for use in dentistry, maternity wards for pain relief and in professional kitchens. Ministers have called upon those producing the substance and suppliers to 'be responsible' and to avoid any recklessness with its distribution and use. They are also urged to be vigilant, including in respect of the reasons for the drug being purchased. Those failing to comply with this requirement will also be deemed as offending, the Home Office has said. 

While the crackdown on this particular drug and its use is welcome, there needs urgently to be put in place - and running alongside the above - public health programmes in every area. There needs to be work with families, schools, colleges and universities to increase awareness of the harms that taking nitrous oxcide can result in.  Too many children and young people are also unaware of the changes in law. They must be education, kept safe and understand that they risk getting a criminal record thanks to laughing gas. It isn't very funny at all.

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