The sale of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, to the public will be banned and the police will be given enhanced drug-testing powers as part of Rishi Sunak’s attempt to crack down on antisocial behaviour “with urgency”.
The levelling up secretary, Michael Gove, said the proposals would stop parks being turned into drug-taking arenas, and would help ministers stamp out antisocial behaviour.
The ban comes a month after the independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) warned against one and said it would be disproportionate with the level of harm associated with nitrous oxide. It said such control could create “significant burdens” for legitimate uses of the substance.
Experts have criticised the “same old tired drug policy” from the Conservatives, insisting the ban will not stop young people from using it.
“No single recommendation on its own is likely to be sufficient to successfully reduce the harms associated with nitrous oxide use,” the ACMD concluded in its report.
Current legislation bans the knowing or reckless supply of nitrous oxide for inhalation, with dealers facing up to seven years in jail. The drug is typically released into balloons from small silver canisters and then inhaled.
Ignoring the commission’s advice, the prime minister has announced plans to ban laughing gas in an antisocial behaviour action plan that will launch new “hotspot police” to cover 16 areas across England and Wales with the highest rates of disorder.
Steve Rolles, a senior policy analyst at the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, said: “This government appears determined to double down on the political theatre of ‘get tough’ drug policing as part of its antisocial behaviour crackdown. But criminalising possession of nitrous oxide will increase health and social harms associated with it, creating new costs across the criminal justice system.
“To reduce risks, this government should sensibly direct resources towards risk education for vulnerable groups, and restrict sales of the bigger nitrous canisters that have no legitimate use. To reduce litter, it could adopt a recycling deposit scheme for nitrous canisters.”
In an attempt to show that “justice is being done”, under the antisocial behaviour plan offenders will be made to wear jumpsuits or hi-vis jackets and work under supervision. Cleaning up graffiti, litter picking or washing police cars have all been given as possible punishments.
Sunak’s plans come weeks after Keir Starmer unveiled Labour’s plans to tackle antisocial behaviour and violence against women and girls.
Sunak said: “Antisocial behaviour undermines the basic right of people to feel safe in the place they call home. The public have rightly had enough, which is why I am determined to restore people’s confidence that those responsible will be quickly and visibly punished.
“This action plan maps out how we will tackle this issue with the urgency it deserves and stamp out these crimes once and for all, so that wherever you live, you can feel safe in and proud of your community.”
The home secretary, Suella Braverman, said: “There is no such thing as petty crime – not only does antisocial behaviour leave people feeling unsafe, it can also be a gateway into serious criminality. It has always been my priority to give police the powers they need to deliver a common-sense approach to cutting crime which puts the law-abiding majority first, and that’s what this action plan delivers.”
Gove, when asked if antisocial behaviour was the right priority for the government in the face of “terrible rates” of prosecution for rapes and violent crimes, said: “I think you have to do both – you have to walk and chew gum.”
Last week Starmer vowed to halve such violence within a decade. He also said a Labour government would never dismiss crime as “low-level”, suggesting that even apparently minor issues such as repeatedly smoking cannabis near children’s windows had a devastating effect on people’s lives.
Tackling crime was not among the “five immediate priorities” that Sunak announced after he took office, but Downing Street has been keen to fight back against opposition promises to tackle it.
The shadow culture secretary, Lucy Powell, said Labour wanted laughing gas to be banned because of the antisocial behaviour challenges it posed, but dismissed the government’s plan as amounting “to nothing”.