Burnley pastor and former addict fears the laughing gas ban could create another drug 'epidemic'
The Government is banning the possession of the substance, also known as nitrous oxide, in a crackdown on antisocial behaviour.
Pastor Mick Fleming, who leads Church on the Street (COTS), says the new law could push the drug underground and trap young users in the criminal justice system.
But Pastor Fleming said: "I look at what [a ban] did to spice in 2016. It was a legal high, but [the Government] created a spice epidemic by banning it. It has now become a massive industry.
"Any time you criminalise something, you put it underground, and it becomes more expensive. It creates a new clientele. People who sell crack start selling it."
Young people in their teens and early twenties predominantly take laughing gas in social groups as it is cheap to buy, he said.
"Parents won’t know their child has had it because the effects are only short, so it’s easier to hide it."
Laughing gas, he added, "took over from illegal highs and grew bigger and bigger. It's so easy to get: people buy boxes and boxes."
The pastor has seen more people using the drug and becoming addicted.
"There’s a reason why usage has gone through the roof in Europe in the last eight to 10 years. It takes you away from reality quickly. Why do you want to detach yourself? That’s what needs looking at.
"People won't stop using it because it’s now illegal. It’s not going to change antisocial behaviour. It’ll just give people a criminal record. It targets a section of society – young people – who may never get a criminal record except for using laughing gas. It might as well be crack or heroine because it will end any hope of a career and push them down the wrong road. Criminalising children will only cause more problems."
The church leader believes the Government should instead pour money into further educating youngsters about the risks and impact of the drug, including talks from recovering addicts.
He says developing minds don’t have the same capacity as adults to consider the long-term effects of using the drug, such as how chronic abuse can lead to a vitamin B12 deficiency causing painful spinal nerve damage and even paralysis.
"The effects don’t last long, but the damage can be long-term. It’s dangerous stuff. Youngsters don’t think it’s like taking crack but it’s highly addictive and can lead you to other drugs. People in the 70s or 80s sniffed glue and progressed onto heroin. It’s the new glue."
He adds that, along with facing peer pressure, young people may turn to drugs to cope with trauma and mental health issues.
That is one of the reasons COTS plans to open a family centre in its Hammerton Street building to offer quicker access to mental health assessments and support.
"If someone is ill or doing something destructive in society, they need help. Punishment doesn’t work. These youngsters need help."