Agenda item

Referral to Scrutiny: Nitrous Oxide Use and Abuse

To consider a Referral to Scrutiny in the name of Cllr Matthew Robinson. The Board is asked to determine whether or not its work programme should be amended in order to include a detailed scrutiny session on this topic later in the municipal year.  


The Head of Democratic Services submitted a report that presented a referral for Scrutiny, alongside some background information to help inform the Board’s consideration.


The following were in attendance for this item:

o   Councillor M Robinson, Referrer

o  Paul Money, Chief Officer Safer Leeds


The referral for Scrutiny was submitted as follows:


To consider an inquiry to look at the use and abuse of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and how the council work alongside/support the Police, help users, educate people, tackle the health problems and work to eradicate the empty canisters we find left within our communities.


Councillor M Robinson addressed the Board highlighting his concerns in relation to the use and distribution of nitrous oxide as follows:

·  Littering of canisters in public spaces including road sides;

·  Distribution of ‘laughing gas’ across the commercial sector in terms of its uses as a legal high;

·  Risks associated with health, particularly when used in conjunction with alcohol.


Councillor Robinson suggested Scrutiny work on this matter on an educational basis to raise awareness to gain a greater understanding on the risks associated with the legal high. Additionally, to understand whether there would be any scope to restrict the purchasing of the substance commercially.


In response to the submission, Paul Money (Safer Leeds) addressed the Board. It had been acknowledged that although there had been a relatively small number of deaths in relation to the use of nitrous oxide, this was considerably fewer compared to the use of most controlled drugs. It was confirmed that it was not illegal to be in possession of the substance but is a criminal offences to supply or possess with intent to supply a psychoactive substance. As a consequence of recent events regarding Covid-19, the use of the substance had become more prevalent with users typically being young people. In terms of targeting resources, West Yorkshire Police will deal with breaches of the law concerning the use of nitrous oxide but are also focusing on priority issues such as the impact of Class A drugs on communities and it was confirmed that nitrous oxide had not been deemed to be so harmful as to warrant control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Members heard of the remedies available to Local Authorities in terms of Anti-Social Behaviour Legislation, the use of Public Space Protection Orders and the powers available in terms of littering. In summarising, the Board noted there was an opportunity to look at legislation, and how the Government could work nationally with the industry and retailers in understanding the supply change.


In response to Members comments and questions, the following was discussed:

·  The legalities of supplying canisters in local shops – nitrous oxide is illegal to sell if it is known or believed to be intended for use as a psychoactive substance, but broadly speaking not illegal to sell. Members noted the opportunity to work with retailers on the rules around selling the substance;

·  The biggest and most visible impact on communities was the littering of canisters;

·  Understanding the impact on users specifically when the substance is taken in conjunction with alcohol;

·  Prioritising the allocation of police and other public resources – work is on-going with Public Health colleagues and Children’s Services, as well as the neighbourhood policing teams. There is opportunity to develop community intelligence around the use of the substance, and targeting areas where hot spots can be mapped. 


Councillor Robinson agreed that in comparison to Class A drugs the substance is not as damaging but it also was acknowledged that there is the possibility of this being a gateway drug, as well as being detrimental to communities in terms of littering. Councillor Robinson was mindful of police resources, and encouraged a conversation around educating and increasing the awareness particularly in schools and environmental teams.


Whilst the Board were keen to explore the impacts on health and explore anti-social behaviour remedies as part of a working group, it was agreed the remit would not be taken forward as a formal inquiry in the first instance. A suggestion was made to lobby government on national legislation, and to consider the work undertaken by Safer Leeds on drugs and alcohol including legal highs as part of a detailed report so that Board members can take a view on further action on the basis of understanding activity that is already underway.


The Chair confirmed an update would be provided prior to the next meeting of the Scrutiny Board, as to how this piece of work would be taken forward.


RESOLVED – The Scrutiny Board (Environment, Housing and Communities):

a)  Noted the contents of the report, along with Members comments;

b)  Agreed that, in consultation with the Chair, the Principal Scrutiny Advisor seeks to commission an update report at an upcoming Scrutiny Board for members to consider in more detail, with a view to determining whether a further working group would be required.


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