Laughing gas laws not working, says ex-chief crown prosecutor
The law governing the sale of nitrous oxide, widely known as laughing gas, is simply not working, a former senior prosecutor has said.
Legislation introduced in 2016 made it illegal to sell the gas, also known as "noz", for psychoactive purposes.
But undercover BBC journalists easily bought nitrous oxide by phone, online and in person at two Manchester shops.
Former North West of England Chief Crown Prosecutor Nazir Afzal said the law was clearly failing to stop supply.
Nitrous oxide use was linked to five deaths last year, according to official statistics, and is the second most popular recreational drug after cannabis in England and Wales.
Its supply is difficult to control because it has legal uses - to produce whipped cream in the catering industry, and in medicine as an anaesthetic.
A joint investigation by BBC North West Tonight and BBC Radio Manchester found it was relatively simple to flout the law.
A reporter called Bolton-based 24/7 delivery company Speedy Whipped Creams and asked if she could get some "noz" delivered to an address in Manchester.
Within two hours, a taxi driver handed over a bag containing two boxes of 24 canisters.
In a statement, Speedy Whipped Creams said: "We do not sell laughing gas - we sell cream chargers.
"If we'd known the customer intended to use the product as a drug, we would not have delivered it."
'Death in a box'
An undercover reporter also visited 10 corner shops in Manchester, asking each time for "laughing gas" or "noz".
She was able to obtain nitrous oxide from two of them.
Mr Afzal, who described nitrous oxide canisters as "death in a box", told the BBC he was worried when shown undercover footage.
"We've got many instances of people who have... suffered serious harm and death because they've used, misused and abused what it is you've purchased," he said.
He called for the sale of nitrous oxide to be licensed to make "it much more rigorous, rather than what it currently is - a complete free-for-all".
The BBC investigation also uncovered how people can quickly order nitrous oxide for home delivery on Amazon.
In one case, laughing gas canisters were handed over to a 16-year-old without any questions asked.
Amazon told the BBC: "Product pages for age-constrained items highlight that they are for over 18s only, and we state clearly on our website that users of amazon.co.uk must be 18 or older or accompanied by a parent or guardian."
Prof Harry Sumnall, of Liverpool John Moores University's Public Health Institute, said surveys suggested about 9% of 16 to 24-year-olds had used nitrous oxide, a figure that had remained static despite the change in the law.
"Over the last 15 to 20 years, there's been around 30 deaths associated with nitrous oxide," he said.
"So in relation to the number of users, deaths are relatively rare, thankfully, but obviously the risk is there."
Nitrous oxide - the highs and lows
- Effects: Feelings of euphoria and calmness, dizziness, difficulty in thinking straight and fits of giggles/laughter, sound distortions or hallucinations
- Risks: Inhaling nitrous oxide directly from the canister or doing it in an enclosed space - eg with a plastic bag over your head - is very dangerous
- Warning: If you take too much nitrous oxide you risk falling unconscious and/or suffocating from the lack of oxygen. People have died this way
- If someone collapses after using nitrous oxide, call 999 immediately, turn them on to their side to avoid choking and stay with them until an ambulance arrives
In the past financial year, there were 16 seizures of nitrous oxide across north-west England.
Det Ch Insp Gwyn Dodd of Greater Manchester Police, said: "We carry out regular patrols in the areas most affected, including university campuses and accommodation, to tackle those who are selling these substances and advise those who are using psychoactive substances just how dangerous it can be."
The Home Office said: "Drugs like nitrous oxide have already cost far too many lives, which is why this government changed the law to make it illegal to supply for its psychoactive effect."