Possession of laughing gas for the purpose of obtaining a psychoactive high became illegal in the United Kingdom on Wednesday, with serial offenders facing up to two years in jail and dealers facing up to 14 years.
Small canisters of nitrous oxide have been increasingly popular in recent decades, as young people, in particular, consume the chemical recreationally for a rapid high.
Doctors warn that prolonged usage can result in anemia, neurological damage, and spinal injuries, while the canisters have littered portions of urban and suburban Britain and have been linked to anti-social behavior.
The prohibition, first suggested by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government in March and now enacted under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, is part of a larger drive on lawlessness before of next year’s general election.
The ruling Conservatives appear to be hoping that their long-held reputation as the party of strong law and order policies will help them overcome a significant polling gap with the main Labour opposition.
“Today we are sending a clear signal to people, especially young people, that not only is abuse of nitrous oxide dangerous to their health, but it is also illegal,” policing minister Chris Philp said.
“For too long the use of this drug in public spaces has contributed to anti-social behaviour which is a blight on communities. We will not accept it,” he added.
He said that police now have “the powers they need to take a zero-tolerance approach to this crime,” warning those caught possessing nitrous oxide “will face consequences”.
Outside of medical usage, British law already prohibits the “knowing or reckless” supply of nitrous oxide for inhaling. However, the canisters are now widely available both online and on the streets.
Possession of the drug with the purpose to “wrongfully inhale it for a psychoactive effect” is an offense under the new powers, according to the interior ministry.
Those who violate the law face an infinite fine, conspicuous community punishment, or a caution on their criminal record.
Serious repeat offenders could be jailed.
The maximum term for producing, supplying, importing, or exporting the substance for illegal purposes has been increased from seven to fourteen years in prison.
Nitrous oxide has long been used in healthcare, catering, and other businesses, and individuals who have a genuine cause to possess it are exempt from the restriction, according to the ministry.