In a letter obtained by BBC Newsnight and addressed to the government, a group of 15 neurologists and allied health experts express reservations about criminalizing the possession of the drug. Despite an increasing number of hospital admissions due to the effects of nitrous oxide, the experts caution that implementing a ban might exacerbate the existing stigma surrounding its users.
In response to the concerns raised, the government maintains its intention to move forward with the ban. Nitrous oxide, a colorless gas often contained in metal canisters, is frequently used by individuals aged 16 to 24 and is among the most commonly used drugs in this demographic.
Extended and heavy use of nitrous oxide can result in nerve-related symptoms, including impaired motor function, unsteadiness, and tingling sensations or numbness in the extremities. Some users also experience nerve-related issues affecting the bladder, bowel, erectile function, or urinary continence.
Although the supply of nitrous oxide for recreational purposes is currently prohibited, mere possession is not. Earlier this year, the government introduced a proposed amendment to the law, which could potentially take effect before the year’s end, rendering the possession of the drug illegal.
In their letter addressed to Chris Philp, the minister for policing, the group of medical professionals emphasizes that criminalizing possession is unlikely to yield health benefits for patients. Despite reports from leading medical practitioners indicating an uptick in nitrous oxide-related cases, the experts assert that criminalization might induce “fear of a criminal record” among young users, potentially deterring them from seeking timely medical attention and leading to long-term harm.
Dr. Alastair Noyce, the author of the letter and Professor of Neurology and Neuroepidemiology, highlights that there’s minimal evidence suggesting that criminalization would reduce neurological harm or enhance the prospects of individuals not in education or employment.
The experts’ letter urges the government to allocate funds for a national education campaign aimed at schools and the media to ensure the public comprehends the risks associated with the misuse of nitrous oxide.
Under the proposed changes, individuals found in possession of nitrous oxide could face penalties of up to two years in prison, unlimited fines, or both. The government has initiated consultations on the plan, involving both experts and the general public.
It’s worth noting that experts have previously argued that an outright ban on nitrous oxide might not effectively curb its usage. The Drug Science scientific charity has voiced concerns that such a blanket ban could potentially lead to more harm than good.
While some advocates, like Mohammad Ashfaq from Birmingham’s grassroots organization: Kick It, support the proposed ban, asserting that it could help combat drug misuse, others emphasize the need for comprehensive education and awareness initiatives.
The complexity of the matter becomes apparent as various perspectives are weighed. As discussions continue, the government maintains its commitment to proceed with the nitrous oxide ban, emphasizing its strategy to address the substance’s misuse within the framework of its anti-social behavior action plan.