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Nitrous Oxide

Volume 828: debated on Wednesday 15 March 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government, further to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs report Nitrous oxide: updated harms assessment, published on 6 March, what steps they are taking to prevent the sale of large canisters of nitrous oxide to the public.

My Lords, it is an offence under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 to supply or offer to supply oxide canisters of any size, knowingly or recklessly, for its psychoactive effect. I would expect police to use all available powers to crack down swiftly on illegal sellers. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs identified concerning anecdotal evidence of an increased prevalence of large canisters since 2015. We are now carefully considering its recommendations and will respond shortly.

My Lords, I must confess I am somewhat disappointed by the response from the Minister. I have here the type of canister that is the challenge that we face. I do not know if you have noticed, but these canisters now litter the countryside everywhere. This one is empty—I did not indulge—but they are a serious problem. They are meant for industrial use, but are also a serious health hazard. There is no limit to the amount that can be ingested with them, unlike the small silver ones, known as whippits, that you see around; they are really meant for inflating party balloons but are also used to get a high. You can buy the large canisters on Amazon, no questions asked. Will the Minister take urgent action to ensure that these canisters are sold to licensed traders only, and take steps to discuss with Amazon the question of putting a deposit on the canisters so that they are returned? I would like the opportunity to meet him to discuss what further action could be taken.

The noble Lord is right that the availability of larger tanks—I thank him for his example of one—is believed to have led to an increase in the amount and frequency of nitrous oxide use. In November 2018, the Government published a review of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which provided insights into the way the Act has affected the sale and use of potentially harmful new psychoactive substances. The review concluded that the open sale of new substances had largely been eliminated. After the 2016 Act came into force, 332 retailers across the United Kingdom were identified as having either closed down or stopped selling. However, I take his points on board; I am happy to meet him and will certainly take this back to the department. I should say that the report was published only on 6 March.

My Lords, the review to which the Minister has just referred went on to say that academic and Europol evidence identified the UK as one of the leading dark-web sources of these illegal substances. What have the Government done since that review to address this and close down these too-easy-to-access sources of highly dangerous substances?

I take the noble Baroness’s point. As I say, the recommendations from the report are still under consideration. As I have just outlined, considerable work has been done on the retail of these canisters, but I will come back when I have more to tell her, based on the review of the report.

My Lords, the advisory council is obviously vital; developments in this area are very speedy, so it enables the law and government decision-making to keep pace. However, the speed of development is glacial compared to the speed of change on the internet, and it is not just substances that we ingest that cause harm but images. Could my noble friend the Minister please take the opportunity to turn to his noble friend next to him from the DCMS, to advise him that somewhere in the Online Safety Bill we need clauses to future-proof so that, as things develop on the internet, the Government have the information quickly to hand so that we can put legislation or decisions in place to stop that harm?

My noble friend Lady Berridge is right; obviously we need to future-proof legislation—and I note that my noble friend next to me was nodding sagely during her question.

My Lords, the advisory committee may not have given the advice that the Government were seeking in this matter, but I hope that the Government will look very seriously at the second issue which the advisory committee reported on, which was education. Given that there are now many medical professionals, both clinical and in research, who place the risks of nitrous oxide on a par with or greater than alcohol abuse, what steps do the Government propose to take to inform the public—particularly young people —of the consequences of nitrous oxide abuse, using their experience of dealing with alcohol abuse?

The noble Lord raises a good point. A free drugs advice service from the Government, FRANK, contains information on nitrous oxide and the harm associated with taking it, such as dizziness, vitamin B12 deficiency, and nerve damage that can result from heavy long-term use. FRANK receives over half a million visits a month, with high levels of awareness and trust. User research commissioned by Public Health England has shown that 83% of 18 to 24 year-old adults are aware of this site, and that 85% of its users trust the site to provide reliable information about drugs.

My Lords, further to the question from my noble friend Lady Berridge, I say that it is a question not just of the ready availability of these online vendors who are working very hard to sell nitrous oxide, but of campaigns by social media which are backing that up. Does the Minister agree that there is now an argument for moving control from the Psychotic Substances Act 2016 to the Misuse of Drugs Act?

My noble friend makes a very good point but the advisory council did not actually recommend that. It said that nitrous oxide should be kept subject to the provisions in the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. However, as I said earlier, we are considering all the recommendations of the report, and the Home Secretary has a duty to consider advice on whether to pursue control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that nitrous oxide is a gateway drug and may well lead to young people in particular moving on to other drugs which are even more harmful? Does he also accept that the courts and the police force find it difficult to deal with the multitude of available drugs, which are constantly changing, so there needs to be huge vigilance to try to understand the range of drugs available to our young people?

I do not have any personal knowledge of whether it is a gateway drug, but the evidence that I have seen certainly suggests that to be the case; I believe it is the third most common drug in England and Wales after cannabis and cocaine, so I suspect that the noble Lord is right. As regards vigilance, I agree; obviously we have a long-term drugs strategy to take the challenge of drug misuse very seriously. It is a 10-year strategy, significant funds have been dedicated towards it, and it includes investing significant amounts of money in an ambitious programme of drug treatment and recovery.

My Lords, can the Minister explain the legality of selling nitrous oxide in these large canisters? Are they illegal and, if so, has anybody been convicted of selling them? If they are not, is the Minister saying, “It is all right. We will welcome it for the moment and have a policy later”?

I certainly do not think I have said that, my Lords. There are legitimate uses for nitrous oxide, and we should bear that in mind. It is used in medicine, dentistry and—this may surprise noble Lords—as a propellant for whipped cream canisters. Those who supply nitrous oxide, knowingly or recklessly, where it will be used for its psychoactive effect commit an offence under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, regardless of the age of the buyer. That can include a maximum sentence of seven years’ imprisonment, and people are convicted under the Psychoactive Substances Act. There is no complacency here.