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