FEATURE: No laughing matter, now nitrous oxide is illegal what changes will criminalising happy gas make to our streets?

Words & pics by Ed King (except lead image – Adobe)

On Wednesday 8 November, the British Government made nitrous oxide an illegal substance as per the Misuse of Drugs Acts 1971, effectively banning the recreational use of the ‘happy’ or ‘laughing’ gas which has seen a significant rise over recent years. Now registered as a Class C controlled substance, ‘serious users’ of nitrous oxide could face up to two years in prison.

Erdington Local looks at the ambitions of the legislation and the effects of both the ban and the drug on the wider community.

We’ve all seen them, small silver bottles that look like they belong in a SodaStream or balloon pump, lying scattered around park benches or bus stops. Nitrous oxide. Or the more colloquially known ‘laughing gas’ or ‘happy’ gas.

What was originally used to numb the pain of root canal surgery has been taken by recreational drug users since the 70s. But in recent years, the increasingly overt use of nitrous oxide has become a flashpoint for community concerns over anti-social behaviour and aggressive youth culture.

Nitrous oxide had already been recognised by the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, which addressed non-legitimate supply of the substance and issues such as direct sales to consumers and cannister sizes. But the Government further criminalised it as part of their Anti-Social Behaviour Action Plan, making it a ‘criminal offence to be found in possession of (nitrous oxide) where its intended use is to be wrongfully inhaled’, or ‘to get high’.

As per the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, non-authorised possession of nitrous oxide is now as illegal the synthetic sedatives Diazepam and Temazepam.

The Home Office explains: “Associated antisocial behaviour causes wider harm felt by communities and to the environment. This includes group gatherings to abuse the drug in public spaces, such as children’s parks or high streets, and subsequent littering of the discarded canisters. There have also been deaths connected to drug driving incidents.”

Over on Castle Vale, many have welcomed the new law. One resident, Barabra, who lives neighbouring Centre Park, tells Erdington Local: “(Castle Vale) is going back to the eighties, to how it was with drugs, fighting all the while, kids out on the street.

“I’m a member of Families for Peace, I have been for 20 years, I don’t believe in guns, I don’t believe in knives, and I certainly don’t believe in drugs. I pay £10 a month for children to be kept off the street so that they’re kept safe.

“I’ll walk through here (Centre Park) at 5:30pm and they’ll all be high as a kite. You feel intimidated, you have to walk out of the park and walk all the way round. Why should we? I’ve got grandchildren.”

But many of the young people that live on Castle Vale don’t use nitrous oxide and feel they are being blamed for the actions of a few or are just “getting grief” from using local parks and public spaces when “there’s nowhere else to go”.

Likewise, in a review of nitrous oxide in 2021, requested by the then Home Secretary Priti Patel, the Independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) found the drug was already adequately covered by existing laws, officially stating: “the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 remains the appropriate drug legislation to tackle supply of nitrous oxide for non-legitimate use.”

The counterpoint to further criminalising nitrous oxide is that you would turn a legally available substance, one used predominately by young people, into a criminal offence overnight.

Over on Gravelly Hill North, Birmingham’s Youth Offending Team have traditionally operated from the Kingsmere Unit. Run by Birmingham Children’s Trust the future of the site is uncertain, but it has been a widely recognised starting point for many young people entering the criminal justice system

One ex-employee explains: “I think it’s a good idea the Government have now criminalised it along with other widely used recreational drugs, such as cannabis and amphetamine, as it is a dangerous substance and young people need to be educated about the potential harm. I think a lot of young people are just ignorant to the side effects of drugs and don’t really understand how damaging they can be.”

However, mirroring the findings recommendations from the ACMD report other professional bodies and individuals feel the move could cause more damage to young people than good.

One experienced services manager with over 25 years experience in the criminal justice system, supporting people suffering with significant drug and alcohol abuse issues, explains: “Legislation in itself will not make it safer for young people who use nitrous oxide, but it will push them into the criminal justice system and the long term effect of this could harm them more.”

Over their tenure they worked closely with the police, probation service, and a variety of partners and support agencies in the West Midlands and the Northeast.

They add: “As yet we do not know all the long term effects of this substance on individuals but it can cause both physical and mental health problems if abused. This is a Public Health problem and should be treated as such. The Criminal Justice approach will not make young people safer.”

Back on Castle Vale, local resident Barbara is concerned about the sizes of cannisters found in Centre Park. And as she works with the estate’s groundskeeper to clean up the mess left by a weekend of late summer sun, the immediate impact drug misuse has had on her family comes out in conversation.

“My son was a drug addict… I’ve just lost him. It would have been his fiftieth birthday tomorrow, and I’m in bits. He was off drugs at the finish, my grandson got him off them. He was off them for nearly two years, but he died from kidney failure.

“But this is all you see,” Barbara adds, picking an empty Sealy Bag up from the park grass.

“I told my son to get help, I took him to get help… but addicts don’t accept help. I spoke to the kids (in the park) last night, I asked where are your parents? They just told me it was none of my f’ing business. I’m worried they might hurt themselves… too damn right I am.”

But with extended or relaxed legislation, the answer to many social ills lies in the community itself. And when it comes to the little silver bottles, at least on Castle Vale, there is also a silver lining.

Cllr Ray Goodwin (Castle Vale Ward, Labour), explains what he and his team are doing to tackle the issues highlighted on the North Birmingham estate: “I have been working closely with worried residents, The Pioneer Group and Castle Vale Community Housing, our local police teams, and local youth organisations, to come with robust plan of action – we need to engage with young people and ensure they are engaged with other activities.

“Young people need good facilities and places for them to be actively involved in things. They need youth centres, creative outlets, and sports clubs to join, so they are not just hanging around parks and public spaces where their presence and actions can infringe on other members of the community – even if they did not intend to cause concern or trouble to others.

“This collaborative and proactive approach, and ongoing relationship building with young people and local services, is the best way to protect our young people, prevent them from accessing these clearly dangerous cannisters, and make our communities a safer and happier place for everyone to live in.”

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article and want to tell Erdington Local about it please email: mystory@erdingtonlocal.com

For more on the recent Government legislation over Nitrous Oxide visit www.gov.uk/government/news/possession-of-nitrous-oxide-is-now-illegal

NEWS: Erdington drug dealer gets over two years behind bars following arrest in Burton upon Trent

Words by Erdington Local editorial team / Pic of Burton Police Station from Google Maps

An Erdington based drug dealer has been jailed for over two years for selling crack and heroin, following his arrest in Burton upon Trent – Staffordshire Police confirmed this week.

Filipe Lopes, 20, from Gravelly Lane, was stopped by eagle-eyed police officers in the Staffordshire town earlier this year. After searching Lopes, officers found more than 100 wraps containing class A drugs, £150 in cash, and a mobile phone.

Lopes was taken to Burton Police Station and questioned about the findings whilst in custody. He was later charged with drug supply offences, and faced with overwhelming evidence chose to plead guilty at the earliest opportunity.

On Friday 6 October, Lopes was sentenced to 27 months behind bars at Stafford Crown Court after pleading guilty to possession with intent to supply cocaine and heroin and using criminal.

Lopes was given a 25 per cent reduction in his sentence due to an early guilty plea which helped ease the strain on the criminal justice system.

Detective Sergeant Jonathan Bradbury, who was the lead officer in the case, welcomed the sentence.

He said: “I’m happy we’ve been able to jail another dealer who was intent on distributing harmful drugs within our communities.

“Officers across the force are committed to proactively targeting drug supply and will continue to act on intelligence leads and reports from the public to bring these people to justice.”

He added: “We will continue to take proactive action against those involved in supplying drugs in Staffordshire.”

Combatting county lines, which is when inner city criminal networks sell drugs in rural towns and villages using dedicated mobile phone lines to trade their illegal wares, is a priority for Staffordshire Police.

Across the region, police teams have been working with each other and external agencies to ‘identify criminals involved in serious organised crime’ and national gang networks, as part of their ongoing Operation Target – as launched in May 2023.

A spokesman told: “This successful case follows our ongoing commitment to tackling serious and organised crime and protecting those who are at risk of exploitation through criminals – called Operation Target.

“Work is continuing to proactively target the groups responsible for these crimes – including county lines, drug distribution, illegal firearms and sexual exploitation.”

NEWS: Four people convicted after Chester Road drugs house raided by National Crime Agency

Words by Erdington Local editorial team / Pics supplied by National Crime Agency

Four people have been convicted after an Erdington stash house was raided by National Crime Agency (NCA) officers, who found 130 kilos of cannabis, 600 ecstasy tablets, and £30,000 cash.

The three men and one woman are all Vietnamese nationals and were using the Chester Road house as a base for a drugs operation, supplying criminal gangs across the West Midlands – the NCA reported.

Alongside the drugs found the haul, thousands of pounds worth of cash was also discovered secreted in the walls of the residential home.  

During a surveillance operation in January 2021, NCA officers followed Bui Tuan, 26, to the Chester Road semi-detached property. Pulling up in a BMW, Tuan was seen carrying a laundry bag into the house, which had been rented by Vien Phan Hoang, 37.

NCA officers raided the property, and found Din Hvan Tran, 26, and Vien’s wife Bui Thi Huong, 29, trying to hide packages of money in the garden.

Inside the Chester Road property, search teams recovered more than 130 kilos of cannabis, some of which was vacuum packed in bags ready to go. The rest was hidden inside the walls of the loft.

A further 600 ecstasy tablets and around £30,000 cash were also found, along with two kilos of a white crystalline powder later identified as ketamine.

Some of the cash was found hidden in a bush, while other bundles had been thrown into a neighbouring garden. The three men and a woman were later charged.

Hoang and Huong both pleaded guilty to the charges against them, but the others denied drug supply and money laundering offences.

In March 2023, Tuan and Tran, who was tried in his absence, were cleared of drug supply offences but found guilty of money laundering at Birmingham Crown Court.

They were both give six month suspended sentences. A bench warrant has been issued for Tran’s arrest. Hoang was sentenced to eight years in prison. The Judge said he played a significant role and was involved in large scale drug dealing whose motive was financial gain.

The details of the court case were only revealed by the NCA in August this year, when Huong finally received a six month prison sentence – suspended for six months.

NCA senior investigating officer Paul Boniface said: “This gang ran a stash house for a wider network of criminals – a location where drugs were stored before being pushed out to street dealers and sold, with cash moving in the opposite direction.

“Our investigation led to the seizure of drugs worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, profits from which would have fuelled further criminality and exploitation had we not taken action.

“The NCA and our partners are determined to do all we can to protect the public from serious and organised crime.”