Authorities ‘making too much’ of Nitrous Oxide misuse, claims councillor
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Leeds city councillors met this week to discuss a report into the dangers of the substance, also known as laughing gas, following an increase in complaints about people using the drug in public during the summer.
Coun Jonathan Bentley (Lib Dem) said the drug caused minimal harm to users and posed little more than a littering issue, but Conservative councillor Trish Smith said it could be seen as a ‘gateway’ drug to more dangerous substances.
A senior council officer confirmed at a meeting of the authority's environment scrutiny board that while the drug presented an issue around antisocial behaviour and littering, it was nowhere near as harmful to individuals as alcohol and tobacco.
Safer Leeds chief officer Paul Money told the meeting: “The peak we saw in the summer months is starting to dissipate slightly.
“The most common trend we see is reports of younger people in vehicles parked up in different locations inhaling the cannisters through balloons. We have had incidents at house parties and unofficial raves we saw through the summer months.
“There is little evidence that the use of Nitrous Oxide is linked to other crime types in the way that some other class A drugs certainly does.
“I do recognise this is a significant issue for local communities. We are tackling this issue and these issues as they arise.”
He added there was no evidence from trading standards of businesses in Leeds illegally selling the substance.
Coun Bentley said: “I hear the expression a number of times about ‘harm’ – I’m still trying to find out what harm taking Nitrous Oxide actually does to the individual.
“We said it doesn’t lead to addiction – is it any more harmful than having a can of beer? I’m sure it’s not as harmful as having a cigarette, and these are things young people do.
“Would we even be aware of the problem if it wasn’t for the little canisters that are left?
“I am failing to see how this is a big issue other than having to clean up some mess, which we do. It’s the same as youngsters gathering in parks and having some alcohol or smoking a crafty cigarette, as youngsters will do.
“If I’m missing a trick, please tell me. But apart from the mess that’s left, is there any evidence it is causing anybody any harm?”
Mr Money said: “I don’t speak as a public health expert, but I would be pretty confident in telling you that alcohol and tobacco are significantly more harmful to people who choose to consume them than Nitrous Oxide ever is.
“Often it is associated with antisocial behaviour, and also the perception it causes for people in their local areas.
“In terms of the context, I would want to reassure colleagues we take this issue seriously. I feel like we have the capacity to deal with this issue in a proportionate way.
“The littering is a significant issue on occasions – particularly when you have large gatherings – it costs money to clean this up.”
Coun Bentley added: “The gatherings, litter and antisocial behaviour is not a consequence of people taking Nitrous Oxide – it is associated with gatherings and people having alcohol or anything else – it is not a causation.
“I am a bit concerned that we don’t want to be criminalising young people for an activity that doesn’t cause a great deal of harm. I feel we are perhaps making too much of it.”
Conservative councillor Trish Smith said: “I have had quite an in-depth conversation with a reformed drug addict. They say that while taking these canisters is not seen as harmful in itself, they are seen as an entry-level drug to the more dangerous substances.”
Mr Money said: “I think the observation that the use of it could be a pathway to more significant drugs is not something I dispute, particularly with regards to where that information has come from. That is a conversation we need to take forward with public health.”
Nitrous oxide is classified as a psychoactive drug, meaning it is illegal to give away or sell. Supply and production can lead to up to seven years in prison.
The board agreed to get an update report on the issue in 12 months time.