Solvent abuse, the law and the so-called ‘legal high’ nitrous oxide

The products associated with solvent abuse are legitimate products available in all our homes and high streets. This includes the so-called ‘legal high’, nitrous oxide.

“Legal Highs”: The Psychoactive Substances Act

In 2016, the Psychoactive Substances Act was passed to control the sale of the (often very dangerous) substances which had become known as ‘legal highs’. The Act made it illegal to sell or supply ‘psychoactive substances’, offer to supply them or possess them with intent to supply.

The term ‘psychoactive substances’ includes solvents, butane gas and nitrous oxide (although not poppers). So, if a retailer has reason to believe that the substances they are selling will be used for intoxication (i.e. to get ‘high’) then they could be prosecuted. The maximum sentence under the Psychoactive Substances Act is 7 years’ imprisonment.

Criminal behaviour

Although it is not illegal to use volatile substances, solvent abuse can cause behaviours which lead to criminal prosecution. Typically these involve antisocial or violent behaviour, assault, theft and other criminal behaviour orders.

Legislation controlling sales to young people

There is also specific legislation controlling the sale of some volatile substances to young people. This includes the following:

  • It is illegal to supply cigarette lighter refills containing butane to anyone under the age of 18 (Cigarette Lighter Refill (Safety) Regulations, 1999)
  • It is illegal to sell spray paint to anyone under the age of 16 (Antisocial Behaviour Act, 2003)
  • Under national licensing regulations, petrol cannot be sold to anyone under the age of 16

If you believe a retailer is selling products to underage customers, please inform your local Trading Standards office.

Is nitrous oxide (‘laughing gas’) legal?

The misleading term ‘legal high’ is often associated with nitrous oxide. It is true that personal use of nitrous oxide is not prohibited by law. But it is worth noting that universities, clubs, festival organisers etc. may make their own decisions to ban the use of nitrous oxide on their premises.

It is an offence under the Medicines Act 1968 to supply nitrous oxide for inhalation (i.e. recreational drug use) and nitrous oxide is one of the substances included under the Psychoactive Substances Act. A statement by the Home Office confirmed that: “The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) continues to prosecute cases involving nitrous oxide under the 2016 Act successfully. Government continues to work closely with the CPS, law enforcement and scientific experts to ensure that prosecutions of cases under the 2016 Act are supported by the best available evidence.”

‘Legal highs’

It’s worth noting that the misleading term ‘legal high’ no longer tends to be used. The term not only sparked concern that people would mistakenly equate ‘legal’ with ‘safe’ but the Psychoactive Substances Act closed the ‘legal’ loophole relating to the sale of these products.

Published: June 2019
Review date: June 2020

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