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Dangerous Drugs

Volume 737: debated on Tuesday 12 September 2023

I beg to move,

That the draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2023, which was laid before this House on 5 September, be approved.

The order proposes an amendment to paragraph 1(a) of part 3 of schedule 2 to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 to bring nitrous oxide under the control of that Act as a class C drug. In September 2021, following increasing reports of the harms associated with the use of nitrous oxide, the Government commissioned the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to undertake an independent assessment of it. The Government requested that the ACMD include in its assessment a recommendation on the appropriate legislative control of the substance. I thank the ACMD for the updated harms assessment that it published in March 2023. Its work has been helpful, and we are grateful for the time it spends advising the Government on this and other issues. The ACMD report did not recommend the control of nitrous oxide under the MDA, but it did note concerning health harms such as nerve damage.

On health harms, does the Minister acknowledge that the amendment is just tinkering with an Act that does not address the health harms of drugs? Does he agree that a wider review of the Act, which is half a century old, is needed to take drug dealers off the streets, tackle sinister organised crime, and treat those with addiction issues with compassion?

I do not agree that the amendment is tinkering; it is an important measure, as I will outline in just a moment. On action against drug abuse more generally, we have a whole 10-year drug strategy that we are a year and a half into. It includes tough enforcement at the border and action to disrupt criminal gangs who deal drugs—we had a record level of drug seizures recently. In addition, we are investing record sums in drug treatment—£582 million extra over a three-year period—and increasing the number of treatment places by 54,000, so there is a comprehensive programme of work, both on enforcement to break drug importation and drug gangs, and, critically, on treatment to help people out of addiction and into a better life.

I thank the Minister for clearly outlining the Government’s intentions. The amendment deals very specifically with nitrous oxide, and I welcome it. The Government have recognised the need to make changes. I would like more stringent drug controls—as, I think, would the Minister—but, bearing in mind the Government’s intentions, and the intention of some Members to divide the House, can the Minister confirm that the amendment will not place more onerous conditions on those who need to use nitrous oxide, such as dentists? Will they be outside its scope? At the same time, the need for the law is clear.

Yes, I can provide that assurance. I will expand on this later, but those who are using nitrous oxide for legitimate purposes, which includes the catering industry, the dental sector, research and even semiconductor manufacture, will be outside the scope of these restrictions.

The hon. Gentleman touched on the control of harmful drugs more generally. It is important to control harmful drugs, particularly where they are very addictive and cause health harms. We have seen in cities in North America that have liberalised their drug laws substantially, such as San Francisco, Portland and some Canadian cities, that it has resulted in widescale public health problems.

I knew that the Minister was going to bring up Portland at some point. There has been a clarion call to the extreme right wing to clamp down on drug policies, but we have to look at Portland in its entirety. Yes, it decriminalised drugs, but it also cut back all its support services drastically and had a fentanyl crisis at exactly the same time. That created a perfect storm for the damage that has been done there. We would not want to undermine some of the good work that has been done there as well.

Well, if we look at the centre of San Francisco at the moment, it is not a very happy sight. The de facto decriminalisation of drugs and, indeed, the failure to police certain criminal offences such as shoplifting has led to disastrous outcomes, and I am determined that we do not see the same in our jurisdiction. I do accept that treatment is very important, which is why we are investing all that extra money in treatment.

The Minister talks about problems in San Francisco. Does he agree that this legislation will also help to stop the havoc that nitrous oxide is wreaking in our coastal communities, in particular by tackling the increased availability of these higher-harm larger canisters? Last summer, Southend police confiscated 400 on one day. I welcome this motion, and I thank the Minister for engaging with me and other Members across the House and listening to our concerns.

I thank my hon. Friend for her kind words. The campaigning that she has done, on behalf of her Southend constituents, is an important part of why we are moving this motion. I can see my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) in his place. I recall a Westminster Hall debate just a few months ago in which he and other colleagues raised the harms that nitrous oxide was doing in their communities. People may sometimes wonder about the value of Westminster Hall debates, but I can honestly say that the contributions made by my hon. Friends the Members for Southend West (Anna Firth) and for Wyre Forest and others were instrumental in bringing about this change.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for mentioning that Westminster Hall debate. Does he agree that campaigners such as Dr David Nicholl, an eminent neurosurgeon in Bromsgrove, were also instrumental? He was responsible for raising with me and many colleagues the unbelievable harm that this does to children, who think that, because it is called laughing gas, it is amusing, but it actually causes profound neurological problems for those who use it too much.

My hon. Friend is right to point to Dr Nicholl’s work, and I thank him again for his campaigning on this issue, without which we possibly would not be here today taking this legislation through Parliament. The evidence we have seen about the neurological damage caused in particular by large-scale consumption of nitrous oxide is very worrying. Neurological units around the country have seen cases of people who have been paralysed and suffered really quite serious consequences. The numbers are not enormous, but they are extremely worrying, and the severe cases, including paralysis, are deeply concerning. I agree completely with what my hon. Friend just said.

I draw the House’s attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: until recently, I was an acting consultant addiction psychiatrist. On the point about other uses of nitrous oxide—legitimate medicinal and industrial uses—moving it away from the psychoactive substances regulations to the Misuse of Drugs Act puts a number of limitations on its use in its current settings. What consultation has my right hon. Friend or his Department done with the medical sector as a whole, and also with other commercial providers or users of nitrous oxide, in advance of laying these regulations before the House?

We have conducted further engagement and consultation with the ACMD and others in industry to understand the implications of this move. I am jumping ahead a little, but we intend to table a further statutory instrument that will take effect alongside this one, which will make it clear that the sale and use of nitrous oxide for legitimate purposes will not be criminalised in any way—it will continue to be permitted. The definition of legitimate use will be very broadly drawn in that SI, because nitrous oxide is used for a wide range of medical research and commercial purposes, and we are not going to try to comprehensively list those purposes. A wide-based exemption for legitimate use will be put in place to make sure that we do not unintentionally stymie either medical research or commercial use of this drug.

It is worth saying that the use of nitrous oxide is quite widespread. Among those aged 16 to 24—

Could we have a little clarity on those two SIs? Does that mean that there is going to be a period in which otherwise legitimate uses will be illegitimate until the new SI is in place, and is that new SI needed because people came forward and said, “Whoops, you’ve missed this use”? I am not quite sure how the two SIs are going to interact.

No, there will be no gap, and it is not unintentional or inadvertent; it is just likely that we will have to amend the way schedule 5 to the 1971 Act works in order to create this new category, essentially to accommodate nitrous oxide. The two SIs will be implemented on the same day—there will be no lacuna or gap. That is just how we have to sequence the secondary legislation under the Act.

Let me return to the question of prevalence. Some 230,000 young people inhaled this harmful substance in the year ending June 2022. It was the third most misused substance among that age group and, as we have discussed already, there is evidence that it has harmful neurological effects, particularly when consumed in quite large quantities.

Beyond that, we know that nitrous oxide has a significant effect on antisocial behaviour—indeed, we announced the measure for which we are legislating today in the antisocial behaviour action plan. Again, I thank parliamentary colleagues for raising the impact that nitrous oxide has had on their communities. It is fuelling antisocial behaviour and having an impact on the decent, hard-working majority who want to use their local park or go down their local high street without being harassed by antisocial behaviour or seeing the little silver canisters littered all over the place. To give an illustration of the scale of the problem, after the Notting Hill carnival a couple of weeks ago, it is estimated that 13 tonnes of those nitrous oxide canisters and others were collected from the street by the clean-up crews. That is an extraordinary amount.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the consumption of beer does not, generally speaking, lead to severe neurological damage and paralysis in the way that the consumption of large amounts of nitrous oxide does.

I do not wish to be disobliging to the Minister, but the ACMD was very clear that it did not believe that the medical harms of nitrous oxide pose anything like the significance of those caused by many other street drugs, or indeed alcohol. Alcohol-related brain damage causes much more neurological harm than many street drugs do, so I think it would be helpful for the Minister to correct the record on that point.

I have referred to the ACMD advice before, and the ACMD did note the anecdotal reports of severe paralysis caused by excessive nitrous oxide consumption to which I have referred already. On this occasion—rarely, but not uniquely, disagreeing with ACMD advice—the Government, as we are entitled to do, took a broader view. We thought about the association with antisocial behaviour and about the fact that among 16 to 24-year-olds nitrous oxide is the third most used harmful substance, and that is why we took the step we did. Of course, I acknowledge that, as my hon. Friend said, alcohol can have an adverse effect as well, but we feel that in this particular case the misuse of nitrous oxide merits action. Many Members have raised concerns about the effect it has had in their communities, and we are responding at least in part to the concerns that Members have raised.

Nitrous oxide is currently regulated under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. It is not, of course, currently an offence to possess nitrous oxide; it is only an offence under the PSA to knowingly or recklessly sell it for personal consumption. So by controlling nitrous oxide as a class C drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act, it will not just be an offence to recklessly or intentionally sell this substance for personal consumption, but be an offence to possess it except for the legitimate use exemptions I mentioned earlier. As I said in response to my hon. Friend’s earlier intervention, we will be bringing through a further SI to set out the definition of those legitimate uses. As I said a moment or two ago, those will be extremely wide-ranging to make sure we do not inadvertently stymie legitimate commercial, medical or research use.

In summary, it is clear that drug misuse ruins lives. In the case of nitrous oxide, it also contributes significantly to antisocial behaviour. The Government have listened to the public and to parliamentarians who have been speaking for their constituents, and that is why we are taking this action.

Nitrous oxide causes significant problems in our communities. As we have heard, it is the third most misused substance among 16 to 24-year-olds, it leads to antisocial behaviour, and the litter associated with it is a blight on our streets, parks and pavements. We know from our own mailbags that our communities are sick of having to literally and figuratively pick up after the problem that nitrous oxide creates. We feel that what the Government are proposing is a relatively minor change to how we approach this, and we do not intend to stand in the way, but I do have a number of questions that I hope the Minister can address.

It has to be said that, as a psychoactive substance, nitrous oxide is already covered by the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. In practice, that means it is already an offence to produce it, supply it, offer to supply it, possess it with the intent to supply it, import it or export it on a similar basis. The only thing that is not an offence is the possession of it outside custody. That is in practice what will be different as a result of this instrument, so I would say, as I did at the beginning, that this is relatively modest.

I am glad that the Minister has addressed the points relating to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, because it is important when the Government diverge from what their independent advisers tell them—which they are of course able to do—that they explain why they are doing so. The Opposition’s view is that we would have given greater weighting to the creation and impact of antisocial behaviour than the ACMD did in its report, which is why taking action is reasonable.

The ACMD did raise other points, and the Minister has covered them to some degree, but I want to get some greater clarity, starting with the legitimate use of nitrous oxide. We heard a couple of answers from the Minister—originally that there would be no change, but later that there would be a follow-up statutory instrument to make sure there is no change. Those two things are slightly different. I think I heard him say that they will come into force on the same day, so there will be no interregnum, but I would be grateful for more clarity if he is willing to say that that is the case.

The ACMD report also discussed a tighter definition of nitrous oxide so that lawful activities are not disrupted. The Minister, in his response, seemed to indicate that he was minded to do that. Could he say what the timeline might be? It also raised the crucial point about the move from the 2016 Act to the 1971 Act, and that the impact of that ought to be kept under review. Can he confirm that will be the case, because we do need to know that this will not excessively criminalise certain groups, especially young people?

It is clear that the 1971 Act is vastly out of date and has many adverse consequences in its application. I wonder whether those on the Labour Front Bench would welcome the idea of our committing to review the use of that Act and to update and modernise it. I am not saying we should scrap it, but we definitely need to investigate its use. That would give me some reassurance and enable me to do what those on the Front Bench are asking later on.

I am afraid that I am going to disappoint my hon. Friend by not setting such a broad policy while debating a statutory instrument on a narrow bit of policy, but I know he will continue to make his case to me and my colleagues ahead of the election down the road.

Let me address the point about the diversionary work. From what I understand from the impact assessment, the Government envisage a relatively small minority of those caught in possession being charged, with the others instead having conditional cautions, community resolutions or diversionary activities. I would be keen for the Minister to state what he has based that assessment on, and how he thinks it is likely to work in practice.

The Minister, I think rightly and importantly, has coupled this issue with that of antisocial behaviour, so we must take a reckoning of the Government’s broader record on antisocial behaviour. They have had 13 years. The Minister talks about the antisocial behaviour action plan and the pilot programmes in 10 police forces, but that is less than a quarter of all forces. We have seen from the Minister and his colleagues a complete failure to reverse the cuts to neighbourhood policing, and we still have 10,000 fewer neighbourhood police officers and police community support officers than we did eight years ago. Half the population say that they rarely see the police on the beat, and that proportion has doubled since 2010. It is clear that the Government’s plans are too modest to meet this challenge.

I welcome the shadow Minister to his place. Will he join me in expressing pleasure at the fact that we now have record numbers of police officers? As of 31 March, there are 149,566 in England and Wales, which is about 3,500 more than we have ever had at any time in history.

I am grateful for that intervention and for the Minister’s kind words of introduction. As he says, I am new to this parish, but if I were in his seat and not mine, I might be a little less gleeful about there being 10,000 fewer neighbourhood police officers and PCSOs than eight years ago, and about the fact that the people of this country, whom we serve, are twice as likely to say that they rarely see police on the beat than when this Government started in 2010. That should perhaps be a point for reflection, rather than the grandstanding that we saw.

People will ask—it is important that the Minister addresses this—what non-legislative actions are being taken alongside this statutory instrument to ensure it is effective. On enforcement, this provision has important implications for our police, and I would be keen to know the Minster’s assessment of the overall readiness of those who are already busy, and who we will be asking to enforce this ban. What training does he think it will take to be effective? Again, we must see this record in its historical context to know where we are building from. The Government have weakened powers over the last decade, and brought in powers that have not been used, such as the community trigger. They have abandoned the major drug intervention programmes that the previous Labour Government left, they have slashed youth service budgets by £1 billion and they have let charges for criminal damage halve. We did not hear from the Minister what sort of broader preventive actions he intends to implement alongside this statutory instrument to make it effective.

We see in the independent report that standalone publicity campaigns are likely to have limited effectiveness, so what more thoughtful, community-level approaches are going to be used? Labour Members have set out a full comprehensive plan, with 13,000 extra neighbourhood officers and PCSOs, paid for by savings that have been identified by the Police Foundation, but which Ministers are refusing to make. We would introduce new respect orders for repeat offenders, hotspot policing to tackle drug dealing, and strong action on fly-tipping. Those are the sorts of things we could align alongside the decisions being taken today to make sure that they are actually meaningful. Otherwise there is a risk, which the Minister will have to reflect on, that people think the Government are chasing headlines, rather than chasing change. To conclude, we will not stand in the way of this instrument today, but it must be seen for what it is: a small intervention when we need much bigger ideas.

I am grateful to the Minister for laying out the reasons for this SI. I recognise the impact on communities up and down the land of this particular substance, not least in littering and antisocial behaviour. I am anxious, as I am sure is the Minister, that if we are going to introduce this new measure, we do it properly. I have a couple of questions for the Minister about the impact of this instrument, particularly on the criminal justice system.

Looking at the impact assessment, I am surprised by the relatively low number of individuals it is envisaged will be put through the system. As the Minister will know, if we are to have an impact, there has to be a significant deterrent effect. If we are to have a deterrent effect, there has to be a sense in people’s minds that there is a very high probability of their being caught and that when they are caught, there will be a swift and certain consequence. Can he reassure us that the police are gearing up to deal with the numbers—even the relatively low numbers in the impact assessment—and that he has an ambition to go beyond those numbers? I know he does not want to do something that is merely performative, but that he wants to have an impact on this issue. We want to see fewer and fewer of these ampoules on the street and, indeed, fewer and fewer young people in particular using this substance.

If the Minister hits his ambition, what impact will that have on the criminal justice system overall? The estimate is that we will put, I think, a total of 500-odd people in prison for possession of this substance. As far as I can see, that is small against a background number that is running into the hundreds of thousands. Nevertheless, that will have an impact on the prison system. The thousands who will be going through the magistrates courts will obviously have an impact there. The police cost per capita of an arrest, charge and disposal of any kind by my calculation comes in at about £880, which seems light to me. Can the Minister reassure us about the cost, the capacity in the system and the ability for police forces to do this properly?

When this SI lands, will we see some action out there on the street? I am concerned we will see broadly what happened after the Blair-Brown reforms to cannabis possession. If the House remembers, at the tail end of that particular period in our political history, the notion was brought in of a cannabis warning, and then a cannabis penalty of 90 quid for police to hand out for pure possession. What happened was that we saw a bit of a bump in numbers, and then it tailed off, because the police realised there was little effect and it was not cost-effective to do it. The numbers diminished over the years.

As the Minister will know, a White Paper last year looked at a different set of consequences for possession, but in the absence of a response to that White Paper, I am keen to hear from him what the plan will be once the SI is in place, because as he and I both know, the policy is not the product; the product is what happens out there on the street. We are holding out a promise to our communities up and down the land that they will see fewer of these ampoules and less antisocial behaviour as a consequence. I hope there is an action plan.

My second point is to ask about unintended consequences. One of the characteristics of my youth in Liverpool in the 1970s and 1980s was the groups of young people gathering together to sniff glue. It was a horrible thing to do and obviously had a serious impact on their brains. The chemicals are even more noxious than this particular substance, so how will the Minister ensure that there is not a diversion towards those kinds of substances and the resumption of glue-sniffing in parks and playgrounds instead of taking this gas? If he can reassure me on both those points, I will be happy to support the SI.

Order. Before I call Alison Thewliss, I point out that, as Members can see, there is a bit of interest in the debate. I will not impose a time limit, but I intend to call the Minister no later than 6.30 pm. If there are to be Divisions, they will come when the Minister sits down.

It is pretty unusual that I come to a debate entitled “Dangerous Drugs” where I have direct experience of having taken some of those dangerous drugs, because I live a very quiet life. However, for many in the Chamber—women in particular—nitrous oxide will have been better experienced as gas and air, which, when used under medical supervision, is generally a very safe drug, although my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) would tell us that she had a collapsed lung as a result of her use of it. It is not something to be taken lightly, but I would certainly dispute whether it is a dangerous drug.

As the Minister pointed out, nitrous oxide is not an uncontrolled substance. Non-legitimate use for psychoactive effects is currently controlled under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs points out that production, supply and importation is illegal. There is an offence to supply if the person knows or is reckless as to whether it will be used for psychoactive effects. In 2015, the advisory council did not advise control under the Misuse of Drugs Act, and in March 2023 it advised exactly the same, so I am curious as to why the Minister was so light on his reasons for ignoring his expert advisers, who have looked at this in great detail. We are hardly in the realms of evidence-based policy. He has decided that he must do something, and that this is something. That is why we are here.

We do not dismiss the public nuisance of these substances. We have all seen the silvery capsules littered in the street—they are a particular hazard to cyclists—and in parts of my constituency I have also seen some of the larger canisters discarded, but all of that could be said for other drugs. As the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) said, we see beer cans littered all over our streets regularly. In parts of my constituency we see syringes littered about the place, and the Government do nothing about it because they do not want people to have safe consumption rooms to take their drugs. Somehow uniquely, the Government seem concerned by the small canisters and the public nuisance of nitrous oxide.

Nothing that the Minister said has given me any reassurance on that. He said nothing really about the supply of these substances, because clearly they are being sold to people against the current legal framework, which is illegal. It will be interesting to hear from the Minister on summing up how many people have been arrested, charged and jailed for supply of this substance under the current rules. If it is zero, he has a bit of a cheek coming here and asking us to agree to further legislation.

What conversations has the Minister had with social media companies? One of my members of staff, Mhairi Love, saw an advert on Facebook for nitrous oxide being sold online. Again, how many prosecutions have happened for that supply for entirely illegitimate purposes, which would fall under the current legislation and be prosecutable?

The hon. Lady makes a very important point about how it is easy to get hold of this stuff. These little canisters can be bought in corner shops, and they can also be bought by the pallet-load for £18,000, which would keep an entire festival going for the weekend. She is right that those people should be arrested for supplying it, but it is also important to ensure that we limit the market to buy it, and if we clamp down on the market where people buy it, that will dry up the supply.

That is not how the market works. We have had the Misuse of Drugs Act for 50 years and it has not stopped anybody from taking heroin, cocaine or anything else. Those drugs are quite moreish and people tend to keep taking them regardless of the legislation put before them to deter them. It does not work. What we need to do is go after the suppliers, but from what the Minister said it seems to me that the Government have no intention of doing that.

The Minister also talked about the broad legitimate use and the regulations he will bring forward on that. Without seeing them, it is difficult to see how effective this will be. If that legitimate use is incredibly broad—it must be to allow people to continue to buy the substance to run their cafés and produce whipped cream—he will find it very difficult to continue that enforcement game. We have no sight of those regulations tonight, so I argue that it would be irresponsible of the House to pass this statutory instrument without having seen the other part of the equation.

Is there not a danger that the “broad uses” clause will mean that good, middle-class white people, with houses where they can consume this drug in private, will be able to continue to do so and poor, working-class young people in parks, possibly predominantly black, Asian and minority ethnic, will end up being criminalised, as with many other drugs?

That is a legitimate question and a legitimate risk, but I do not see it in the Government’s impact assessment.

There is also nothing about the preventive actions that the ACMD talks about in its report. There is nothing about a public health campaign, education or wider knowledge of the health impacts of the drug, which the ACMD recommends that the Government take forward. There are things such as B12 deficiency, nerve damage, incontinence and erectile dysfunction, but the Government are not promoting a plan of how to disseminate that information to people.

I worry—as do the neurologists who have written to the Government with their concerns about further regulation and criminalisation—about stigmatising people who have used this substance and want come forward and get support. Criminalisation will make them less likely to come forward. By criminalising, the Misuse of Drugs Act dissuades people, particularly women, from coming forward for help. The Government have said nothing tonight or in the impact assessment about whether people are less likely to come forward for medical support for having used the substance if they are criminalised.

Furthermore, if kids are using the drug, what support services do the Government intend to put in place to tackle addiction in that age group? If that is a problem, what is the Government’s specific response for addiction support for young people who abuse the drug? The Minister had nothing to say on that whatsoever.

Let me come to the position of Scotland on this issue. The Scottish Government responded to the ACMD report on the use of nitrous oxide and were crystal clear, saying:

“The Scottish government has and will continue to promote a public health approach, rather than continuing the failed war on drugs. It is our view that banning nitrous oxide will further criminalise people for their drug use, serving only to heap additional harms on vulnerable individuals, our young people and communities while doing little to improve the health of these individuals.”

The point about health is absolutely crucial. The Government have said nothing about the health impacts of the drug and intervening on it. What they have outlined in the impact assessment is the cost. They say, in an incredibly vague paragraph on page 15:

“Total costs across all monetised set up and ongoing costs are estimated to be between £19.6 to £178.1 million…with a central estimate of £67.9 million…over the 10-year appraisal period.”

That is an incredibly wide range. The Government, again, are not explaining exactly why they should pass the legislation. They also say at the top of page 19:

“There is limited evidence available to estimate how nitrous oxide misuse may change following the intervention.”

They want to spend tens of millions of pounds and they do not even know whether the intervention will have an impact.

Framing this issue under the Misuse of Drugs Act does not recognise tackling addiction as a public health issue. It is a public health issue. We cannot arrest our way out of a public health issue. It does not tackle the reasons why people are taking this drug in the first place, not does it tackle supply or public health. The Home Affairs Committee recently concluded in its report on drugs that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 require reform. The report says:

“We recommend that the UK Government reform the 1971 Act and 2001 Regulations in a way that promotes a greater role for public health in our response to drugs, whilst maintaining our law enforcement to tackling the illicit production and supply of controlled drugs.”

This SI does nothing about production and supply, and nothing about public health.

We are here tonight because the Government have decided that something must be done, and this is something. The Scottish National party opposes this SI and will vote against it tonight. It criminalises people at unclear cost. There is no sense of tackling the source, reducing demand or treating this as a public health issue. It is bang on form—if I may say so, Mr Deputy Speaker—that the Labour party is going along with this unevidenced drivel. In Scotland, we want a humane drug policy. We have a caring and compassionate human rights-informed drug policy for Scotland, but we do not yet have the powers to implement it. Until such time as the Scottish Government have full control over all our powers as a normal independent country, we seek the devolution of drug laws to allow us to deal with them as a public health issue, as they should be.

It is a pleasure to follow the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss). I do not disagree with much of what she said. I believe the Government will achieve very little through these measures, except perhaps to cause considerable disruption to industry and the medicinal use of nitrous oxide. I am far from convinced by the changing reassurances given by the Minister at the Dispatch Box in that respect.

I once again draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am a practising NHS psychiatrist. Until recently, I was working as an acting addictions consultant psychiatrist and I have dealt with the misuse of drugs extensively throughout my medical career.

I believe in an evidence-based approach to policymaking. This issue has been examined by the ACMD at the request of the Government. The ACMD suggested very clearly that this was not the appropriate legislative vehicle to deal with nitrous oxide. It made that recommendation for two reasons. First, we already have the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, so if we want to deal with the illegitimate sale and supply of nitrous oxide there is already legislation in place to do that. Secondly, we have other laws that can be used, for example to deal with the unacceptable littering that sometimes occurs with the canisters used in the recreational use of nitrous oxide.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the ACMD was asked many years ago to opine on exactly this point and it was chased up by two Home Secretaries to try to get a response? It was not until this statutory instrument was first talked about earlier this year that the ACMD got around to answering the Government’s request to make a judgment.

I am aware that it takes some time to compile ACMD reports. The reason is that the ACMD likes to look at the evidence in the round. There are a number of issues to look at here, such as harms of use. There is relatively limited evidence and data to suggest that nitrous oxide is substantially more harmful than many of the substances we use daily, such as caffeine. Using caffeine to great excess has very profound and immediate health consequences, as does alcohol. The point was made by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) about the Notting Hill carnival and the number of beer cans and other forms of rubbish left there. If we look at the social and health harms of alcohol, which is a legal drug and one that is misused legally, they are considerably more profound than what we are talking about or indeed many other street drugs.

Can my hon. Friend clarify to the House what his conclusion is on this matter? Is he saying that he opposes the measure, or is he saying that if the measure goes ahead he wants the Government to keep the matter under review?

If the House divides this evening I will be voting against the measure for the further reasons I am about to outline.

I think it would be helpful to remind the Minister what the ACMD actually said with regard to legislation:

“Based on this harms assessment, the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 remains the appropriate drug legislation to tackle supply of nitrous oxide for non-legitimate use. There is, however, a need for enforcement of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 to be supported by additional interventions designed to reduce health and social harms. Based on this harms assessment, nitrous oxide should not be subjected to control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 for the following reasons”.

Those reasons have been drawn out to some extent during the debate, but they are neatly summarised by the ACMD in its recommendations to the Government in its report.


“Level of health and social harms”,

which is relatively limited, and

“current evidence suggests that the health and social harms are not commensurate with control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.”


“Proportionality of sanctions: the offences under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 would be disproportionate for the level of harm associated with nitrous oxide and could have significant unintended consequences.”


“Impact on legitimate uses: control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 could produce significant burdens for legitimate medical, industrial, commercial, and academic uses. The current scale and number of legitimate uses that stand to be affected is unknown but is estimated to be large.”

I think it is fairly clear that the Government did not carry out a proper impact assessment before bringing this measure to the House.

I thank my good friend for allowing me to intervene. Does that mean that he thinks we should do nothing at all?

No, I do not think it means we should do nothing. I think that if we believe, as I think many of us do, that we should control the illegitimate supply of nitrous oxide, we should look at existing legislation, such as the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, which was designed and taken through its stages by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning). This point was discussed at some length during its passage. The focus was not on criminalising use and the potential users, but on controlling the supply: a clear distinction was drawn. The Minister may correct this view, but the ACMD made it clear in its report that better enforcement of that existing legislation to control illegitimate supply would be a much better and more proportionate way of dealing with the issue at hand, and the same was suggested more broadly in the evidence supplied to the ACMD while it was compiling its report.

So there is already a legitimate means of dealing with this, but unfortunately there is the potential for unintended consequences, and I was not reassured when the Minister said earlier that the Government would introduce another measure—which no one in the House has seen as yet—to ensure that there would be no such unintended consequences. If a Government are introducing two good pieces of legislation, they should introduce both of them together so that the House can consider them in the round. My concern is that primary legislation such as the Misuse of Drugs Act is tightly drawn, and unless it is amended, it is difficult to introduce another measure to sit beneath it and mitigate its provisions. I am therefore not reassured by the Minister’s comments, but in any event it is not good or effective government not to present the two measures at the same time so that we could consider the issues in the round.

Because I believe that there is already legislation in place which needs to be better enforced to deal with illegitimate supply, and because I do not believe that the Government have given adequate weight or consideration to the potential unintended consequences for legitimate users of nitrous oxide—which the Minister effectively admitted in his opening comments—I believe that the Government are in the wrong place at present, and that it would have been better to produce a proper impact assessment of the legitimate uses to sit alongside this measure before bringing it to the attention of the House. For all those reasons, I will vote against the order if it is put to a vote.

To my constituents nitrous oxide is an irritant, manifesting itself in the plethora of canisters that we see clustering in certain places—seemingly in never-ending numbers, judging by the number that my constituents and I collect during our litter picks. However, for users of nitrous oxide there is a far more serious side. Picking up on the comments by the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), it seems obvious that the powers of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 have not been effective, because we are here today talking about this. I have come to a different conclusion to him, though, on what we should do with this regulation.

We know from investigations by the likes of Sky News that it is very easy to acquire this drug. It was described as being as “easy as buying bread”. It is probably cheaper at the moment as well. The Sky News investigators found that age verification was skipped and that balloons were offered in accompaniment to cannisters, so there was no pretence at all that those sales were for legitimate purposes. That ease and the apparent openness about the intended use of the gas is astonishing, especially given that someone can end up with a seven-year prison sentence for selling it, but with just 31 and 49 reported convictions in 2020 and 2021 respectively, it is clear that only a tiny fraction of the transgressions are leading to action.

More than this, it is failing the predominantly young people who are consuming the substance. It appears that the potential side effects of the drug are underappreciated. To many, it is considered harmless and short-lasting, but there is mounting evidence that there are significant issues, particularly for those who regularly consume large amounts of the drug. I have spoken to the families of those who have been affected. Between 2001 and 2020 there were 56 registered deaths involving nitrous oxide, most of which have taken place in the last decade. While that figure is relatively low compared with benzodiazepines, for which over 2,000 deaths were registered in the same period, the fact that some of those heavy users have developed myeloneuropathy, which causes damage to tracts of the spinal cord and nerves, should not be overlooked.

Medical professionals have warned of a notable increase in the numbers of people requiring medical interventions as a result of using the drug. Data released by the London Ambulance Service showed an almost 500% increase in the number of incidents related to nitrous oxide between 2018 and 2022, with more than a tripling in the number of calls between 2021 and 2022. If those trends in London are being reflected across the country, we are in the middle of a rude awakening about the consequences of this so-called safe drug. Certainly, my constituent whose son was admitted to hospital after rupturing his lung following inhalation of nitrous oxide would attest to the need for greater awareness of the risks of taking it. She has certainly done her bit in highlighting her son’s hospitalisation, but it really should not be up to her to point out the dangers of nitrous oxide.

There is also the impact of nitrous oxide usage on communities. As we have heard, it causes a significant amount of litter and environmental damage. Constituents are fed up with having to see collections of small containers littered in parks and on street corners. In my constituency, users are now graduating to the larger canisters, which are even more unsightly and presumably cause far more damage than the little canisters. Constituents are fed up with the antisocial behaviour that often comes along with this, and there is also a danger when people drive vehicles having inhaled nitrous oxide. According to the ACMD, that misuse when driving accounted for 20% of the deaths associated with nitrous oxide in the last half century.

I support the Government’s motion today but there are questions that have been left unanswered, which many Members have picked up on. I know that various options are being considered for the licensing regime, which the Minister talked about. It is clear to me that just classifying nitrous oxide under these regulations without dealing with the licensing regime will not be sufficient. It will just criminalise those using it instead of tackling the problem of those supplying the drug for non-legitimate purposes, which appears to account for the majority of sales. Those glaring loopholes have raised concerns.

One of my constituents whose family have been impacted worries that this is a knee-jerk reaction from the Government and that they have not properly considered the views of healthcare professionals, addiction services and those with lived experiences. She also has concerns about unintended consequences as a result of this legislation. It would have been extremely helpful if we had had full details of the licensing regime when we were considering this statutory instrument today. This legislation is only going to work if we have a properly enforced licensing regime that is effective in dealing with non-legitimate sales. If we are going to support this motion, we need to be assured that there will be an effective licensing regime coming off the back of it.

Of course, we are cognisant of the fact that criminalising this substance must be accompanied by other measures, such as increased community policing. The impact assessment states:

“investigation costs to the Police have not been estimated.”

Surely, if use remains as ubiquitous as it is now, it will have a huge impact on police resources, unless users are given a free pass. Given that thousands of kids are currently inhaling nitrous oxide without any police intervention at all, I wonder what the approach will be to enforcement, unless we expect the cells to clog up.

Paragraph 58 of the impact assessment states:

“It is estimated that between 8 and 63…additional prison places will need to be built.”

This implies that there will be some enforcement action, and it comes with a price tag of between £2 million and £15.8 million, which is not an inconsiderable figure. Can the Minister advise us on where these new prison places will appear? It looks like this will lead to at least some people ending up in prison.

There also needs to be a campaign to increase awareness of this new criminal liability, because young people have been inhaling nitrous oxide without any criminal consequences. That campaign needs to be accompanied by a better awareness campaign on the dangers of inhaling nitrous oxide, be it criminalisation or hospitalisation. People who see it as a bit of harmless fun need to know that there are consequences.

I refer the House to my outside interests on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I bear the scars of being on the Treasury Bench in 2016 when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) alluded to, I took through the primary legislation on what most people called “legal highs” or synthetic drugs. We had many a debate, like we are having this evening, on how far that legislation should go and what it should contain. I learned an awful lot during the Bill’s passage—I took it all the way through—about certain habits and certain uses of certain products. We discussed nitrous oxide, and at the time I was comfortable with it being exactly where it was until today.

I agree with many colleagues on both sides of the House that the enforcement envisaged when we passed that legislation has not materialised in quite the way we would have liked. Corner shops were selling legal highs and, sadly, there were some really tragic deaths. People were not only hospitalised but long-term hospitalised, and parents lost young children, so we had to pass that legislation. Alongside this statutory instrument we should have more enforcement, although I know that not everyone in the House agrees.

Local government could do more, and it is asking for these powers. My constituents are fed up to the hind teeth with their parks and streets being turned into dumps. I have many beautiful parks in my constituency, and I recently spoke to the gardeners responsible for looking after Gadebridge Park. I was astonished when they told me of the sheer quantities of these little capsules—we also have some degree of the larger ones coming through now. I stand to be corrected, but do not think these little capsules are for commercial use. They are specifically manufactured for the predominantly young people who think nitrous oxide is safe, which is massively dangerous. When we had the debates back in 2016, we heard that the same language was being used to indicate that legal highs were safe. Nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas” as it is called by those who want to undermine the argument we are making today, is not safe. It is dangerous. Some people using it will feel, at the stage they have been using it now—God knows what will happen further down the line—that it is okay and has had no effect on them. However, like others who have spoken this evening, I have heard from my constituents of instances where nitrous oxide has had a devastating effect on their young children. It appears that younger and younger children are using this product and it is becoming increasingly freely available.

I support this measure and will go through the Lobby in support of it, but legitimate questions have been raised in the House today. If we pass legislation, we have to feel that it is going to make a difference and be enforceable. I do not quite know how my local police force in Hertfordshire is going to be able to enforce this. I do not know how it enforces the legislation, which I voted against, on people smoking in their car if there is a young person there. We all know that that legislation was right and logical, but it is almost unenforceable and there have been almost no prosecutions. So there is a lot more work to be done, and the Minister is going to have some of the scars that I had on my back as a result of this, but what we are doing is right. Let me go back to the issue of advice. Ministers get advice from many different places—colleagues, experts, their civil servants and their special advisers—but at the end of the day they have to make the decision. On the decision that this Minister has made, there will be work to be done when we bring the further secondary legislation through, and we might need to amend primary legislation in the distant future. We have heard from both Front Benchers that there is no intention to do that imminently, which will disappoint some in the House this evening. However, it is right to concentrate on what we can do today in this House to protect our constituents and their loved ones, and I hope that this legislation will do that.

As I said, I will be calling the Minister at 6.30 pm, if not before. Three Members wish to speak. If you could all help one another so that everybody gets in, that would be really useful. I call Ronnie Cowan.

I was delighted to hear that there were moves afoot to change the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, because if ever a piece of legislation needed changing, it is the 1971 Act—it is followed closely by the Gambling Act 2005, but that is for another day. There are so many things wrong with the 1971 Act. It was bad legislation in its day and for more than 50 years it has ensured that people are criminalised, stigmatised and ostracised. It has created divisions in society and led to unnecessary pain and suffering. That should not be a surprise to anyone, because that is what it was designed to do. It was never intended to provide support for those harmed by drugs. It was never based on compassion. It was never meant to address the issues associated with recreational drug use. Therefore it comes as no surprise that in the past 50 years things have simply got worse.

Sadly, today, rather than righting some of the wrongs by decriminalising or legalising drugs, and rather than striving for drug consumptions rooms, safe consumption facilities, naloxone provision, medication assisted treatment, education and support, we are being asked to make matters worse. We are being asked to turn a blind eye to the evidence and learn nothing from the misclassification of cannabis; instead, we now want to persecute more people with the continued aim of arresting our way out of a drugs crisis. It is widely acknowledged that given the many legitimate uses of nitrous oxide, enforcement will be a nightmare. Currently, the Government have three licensing proposals but are still in consultation over which to adopt. Perhaps the Minister can clarify that in his response. Quite why we are pursuing the reclassification before we have sorted out the licensing is beyond me. In the meantime, we are being asked to remove this regulated substance and create a marketplace for criminals to fill with who knows what—it is absolutely bonkers. As Steve Rolles said in Conservativehome:


and enriching—

“criminal groups will fuel violence and anti-social behaviour, not reduce it.”

I am a bit sceptical, as we are talking about nitrous oxide use as though it is a much harder drug. A lot of the kids taking it, certainly those in Wolverhampton, are not hardened drug users, but young people who do not think they are doing anything wrong. They do not hear about the medical risks, and this drug is so cheap and so widely available. Surely the Government are doing the right thing in nipping this in the bud so that these young people do not go down the road of falling in with the wrong crowd and continually moving on to harder drugs.

My point is that the Government are not nipping this is in the bud. What will happen here is that they will hand this over to the criminal fraternity, and kids who want to take drugs will continue to take drugs, but now we will not know what they are taking and it could be doing them more harm. Meanwhile, they will be arrested and given a criminal record, which will live with them for the rest of their days. That is not helping the situation at all.

I was just going to say that this change will result in people being arrested and convicted. That conviction will lead to stigma and damage employment opportunities, housing, personal finance, travel and relationships. That is what we have been doing for 50 years, and that has been a rolling success, has it not? There is little or no evidence that says that this action will address—[Interruption.] Does the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) want to intervene?

There is little or no evidence that says that this action will address the problem. Can the Minister provide me with one example—just one—over 50 years where arresting someone for personal possession and giving them a criminal record has helped reduce the misuse of drugs? As has been highlighted already in this debate, the problems of antisocial behaviour and littering can be addressed through existing legislation properly applied.

This change is driven by the Government’s desire to be seen to be coming down hard on crime and, by doing so, they are ignoring evidence from their own expert body, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, along with the Royal Society of Medicine, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations. The focus should be on education, not punishment.

This change does nothing to address the question of why people fall into addiction, or indeed why they take drugs in the first place. It does nothing to reduce criminality; it just pushes it on to the consumer. It does nothing to make people safer. It creates a vacuum for criminals to fill. It is a wolf whistle to the “hang ’em high” brigade and it is typical of the lack of long-term strategic planning that is required. There are no short-term solutions; no magic wand exists.

Finally, continuing to bolster a policy that has not worked for 50 years will only add to the misery and pain that has already been inflicted. It is time to think outside the box and radically overhaul this Act and make it fit for the 21st century, where drug harm is a health issue and not a matter for the criminal justice system.

Having had a Westminster Hall debate on exactly this subject a few months ago, I do not propose to take up too much of the House’s time. I just want to thank the Minister for listening to that debate and actually taking action as a result.

I got involved in this matter as a result of being lobbied by BBC Hereford & Worcester and Dr David Nicholl, a Liberal Democrat councillor in Bromsgrove, who is a neurologist. He highlighted for me the damage that nitrous oxide does to kids. He likened it to an electrical appliance that has had the insulation stripped off the wiring inside it and then expecting that electrical appliance to carry on working. This is what it does to your nerves and it is a huge problem for people who take it.

There has been a lot of debate this afternoon about the fact that the measure will criminalise people and that we should be attacking the suppliers rather than the users. At the end of the day, if something is called laughing gas and is said to be a harmless drug—a harmless and safe high—that misleads people into thinking that it is perfectly safe to take. But it is not perfectly safe; it has profound implications for people’s health. It is absolutely terrible. The hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) made the important point that we are going to be criminalising people. Ultimately, of course, some people will be criminalised, but is it not worth a small number of people being criminalised to act as a deterrent for the majority who—

It has not been proven to be a deterrent. Look at the numbers that we have across the United Kingdom. Has arresting people and criminalising them ever been proven to be a deterrent?

It is always very difficult to prove a negative. I take the hon. Member’s point, but I am happy that we will be providing a deterrent for kids of the generation of my children; that is what I care about. I am incredibly grateful to the Minister for listening, incredibly grateful to Dr David Nicholl, a neurologist, for giving me scientific evidence to support his campaign, and incredibly grateful to BBC Hereford & Worcester.

As with all these issues, we are reminded of particular communications that we have from constituents. When I was preparing for my Westminster Hall debate, I received an email from somebody who wanted to talk about her brother. He was a very talented sportsman who was possibly going to play rugby for England. He was also a talented investment banker—I know we do not always like investment bankers—with a very good career ahead of him in the City of London. He found nitrous oxide, thinking it was a harmless high, but within a year he had committed suicide as a result of the damage he had done to his system. If we know that is a possible outcome, I do not think it is right to do anything other than send a very strong message that this is a dangerous drug. Criminalising it sends that message to try to put people off using it.

I rise with great scepticism about this measure, because it is using an Act that is fundamentally flawed. The 1971 Act does not work. It does not work in criminalising people or in reducing drug use, drug deaths or drug harms. In fact, the evidence across comparable countries, especially Portugal and other southern European countries, is that the Act increases the harm for people. It drives people away from getting treatment and support.

I am also sceptical about the slight moral panic. That is not to dismiss the marginal cases of horrible and acute harm for those affected, including death in the worst circumstances—by the way, we have caffeine deaths in this country—and heart, lung and neurological problems. As the Minister said, this is the most widely taken drug by young people, but the harms caused do not even rank in the top 50 harms caused to young people. The idea that this drug is causing great harm is just not true.

Most people use this drug. I have used it at the dentist. People have used it in hospital settings. But most people use the drug recreationally, harmlessly and acceptably. My view is that that is fine. I have not used the drug recreationally, but I have been in rooms where top judges from the High Court, lawyers, senior politicians and celebrities have used these kinds of drugs, and other drugs, and it causes them no harm. The police do not come knocking at their doors, because the usage is behind closed doors by wealthy people, predominantly white, who are out of sight and out of mind. The state does not mind.

This classification will target poor people, young people, and predominantly people from ethnic minorities. We know that is the case because that is what has happened with all other forms of drug taking, where large numbers of people from different demographics take the drugs but the laws criminalise a specific set of demographics. That is the fundamental problem with the 1971 Act—it targets people and communities, rather than helping them get off the drugs they are addicted to or to move to a safe space. This measure will make things worse.

The measure will also make things worse in terms of gangs and criminal syndicates. It should come as no surprise: the Conservative Government has been giving get-out clauses to criminal gangs for the last 10 years in many other sectors, through bungs to their mates or legislation that allows dodgy dealings. But this measure will move this trade underground. It will suddenly mean that a premium can be charged on this particular drug. It will mean that people will not know what is in the canisters safely. It will mean more deaths and it will mean profits for criminal gangs—they will go laughing to the bank. The people who really want this measure are the gangs. The people who really want the continuation of the 1971 Act are the gangs. I want the Government and my party to stop being the cheerleaders of gangs and criminals, because while they continue to cheerlead for the 1971 Act, that is what they are.

Let us look at the evidence of what the Government’s own Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs says: that this drug has no effect on crime whatsoever at the moment. There is no evidence that it causes or exacerbates crime, although there is some minor evidence that it causes antisocial behaviour. I suggest to hon. Members that the antisocial behaviour is not really caused by laughing gas; it is caused by the fact that there are young people hanging around park and benches with nothing better to do, because youth services have been slashed in this country and billions of pounds taken out of support services. People who live in miserable accommodation, who do not have living rooms to sit in because they live in horrible, filthy bedsits, who are out on the streets in the evening trying to while away the hours and take the edge off their often miserable and difficult lives, because they are in absolute poverty or they have other social issues around them, and there is no one in the state to support them—that is what is antisocial. Yes, for the person in their nice big house who does not want to be disturbed in the evening it is a bit of a frustration, but those things can be dealt with, just as we deal with many other issues.

The same argument can also be made on littering; it is a reason, surely, to move to producer responsibility, where we have stamps and marks on the canisters so we can see who is supplying those canisters and ensure that suppliers of those canisters are punished properly. Many of my constituents think we should do that with the plastic cups strewn on our beaches, because we do not know which bar has given them out and not picked them up. I agree with that. I think that for waste and recycling we need to move to a completely different model, but that is not a model of criminalising young people.

This measure is criminalising young people, because the only change here is to criminalise young people. If there was a way to stop this substance being produced, if there was a way to ensure that people can enjoy themselves—personally, I do not have a problem with people enjoying themselves with drugs—but in a safe way that does not cause antisocial behaviour, I would be all for it. However, I am afraid that all this measure will do is exacerbate the situation.

Personally, I would like not to have a vote on this measure today, because I think it would be better for the Government to go away and rethink it, given the cross-party opposition to it, and to find a way forward. If there is a vote, I am afraid I will, very reluctantly, not to be able to support the Government on this.

This has been an interesting and wide-ranging discussion, and I will try to conclude relatively briefly. I start by thanking the shadow Minister for his support for this measure in principle; it is good to start off on this note of cross-party consensus, which I hope will continue for the remainder of his tenure in his new role. He asked some questions, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), about plans for enforcement and the resources that will be dedicated to this issue. I can confirm that it is something we expect the police to be focusing on.

The shadow Minister also asked about the antisocial behaviour action plan. It is true that we are starting with pilots in just 10 force areas doing the antisocial behaviour hotspot patrols, but in April of next year that will expand to all 43 police forces across England and Wales, backed by around £43 million pounds of extra new funding to make sure those ASB hotspot patrols are out and about, both dealing with antisocial behaviours more widely and looking specifically at the issue of nitrous oxide consumption.

There were a number of questions about prison places. We are in the process of building more than 20,000 extra prison places. We expect this measure to have a significant deterrent effect on the consumption of the drug. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) said, reducing consumption will reduce the incentive to supply the drug as well. We expect it to be enforced.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) for his work on the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. Some Members asked about the action that followed, and I think my right hon. Friend can take pride in the fact that 332 retailers stopped selling psychoactive substances as a result of his legislation, and that there have been at least 230 prosecutions under that Act, which, of course, covers nitrous oxide. I think I said earlier that it regulates nitrous oxide, but it would be more accurate to say that it covers it.

There has been some discussion about the ACMD. I put on the record again my thanks to that council for its work advising the Government. We almost always follow the ACMD’s advice, although there have been occasions, including under the last Labour Government, when the Government have taken a slightly broader and different view, for reasons that many Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and the shadow Minister, have outlined. We have taken a slightly different and broader view in considering the social harm and our concern that the harm and paralysis the substance causes may get worse if its use is allowed to spread, but we have also consulted the ACMD on how we will go about implementing the legislation. We have done a public consultation on implementation, and the report was published on 5 September, making it clear that there will be a wide-ranging exemption for legitimate use.

Some Members asked about legitimate use. We will amend the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 to make it clear that legitimate use is any use that does not involve inhalation by a human. Inhalation by a human for research and medical purposes will, of course, be lawful. I hope that that gives the little extra clarity that Members asked for.

A couple of Members referred to people who consume the substance medically. Of course, when people consume nitrous oxide at the dentist’s or in the context of giving birth, they are being supervised by a medical professional. In the case of giving birth, an anaesthetist is typically supervising the administration of the drug. That is necessary because it is potentially very harmful.

A few comments have been made about the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 more widely. I do not propose to go into that in detail, save to say that if we consider jurisdictions where they have taken an incredibly permissive view, such as San Francisco, it has not resulted in more people going into treatment; it has led to a significant increase in deaths as a result of drug overdoses, particularly from synthetic opioids, and to widescale disorder on the streets. I do not accept the thesis that we can have treatment only if we liberalise drug laws and have out-of-control public consumption, as in some American cities. We do not want that happening in this country. That is why a combination of going after drug supply at the border and going after criminal gangs is important, combined with the funding of treatment, which we are doing with an extra £582 million for treatment over three years, and record police numbers. We have 149,566 police officers—more than ever before.

The measure, which I hope we will vote through this evening, will help us to combat antisocial behaviour across the country. It will protect people—particularly young people, but adults as well—from the medical harm that the drug can do. It is a critical part of the Government’s battle against antisocial behaviour. I commend the order to the House.

Question put.


That the draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2023, which was laid before this House on 5 September, be approved.