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Why Were British Police Selling Laughing Gas on eBay?

It looks like the police were selling laughing gas for profit through the same legal loophole that dealers use.
Hannah Ewens
London, GB

A screen shot of the Devon and Cornwall Police eBay listing for NOS canisters

Everyone sells tat they've got laying around on eBay, and Devon and Cornwall Police are no different. Only thing is, instead of old history text books and Tommy T-shirts marked up three-fold, they use their eBay account to flog seized assets and unclaimed found items.

Have a look around the feedback section and nothing immediately seems out of the ordinary; with an almost perfect positive rating, it looks the south-west boys in blue are making a nice little profit selling everything from the Duracell batteries to Armani watches they've found or confiscated. But keep scrolling and you'll see that, "during [the] past month" the force sold a 24-pack of NOS canisters through the auction site.


As UK weed activist group Feed the Birds first noticed, posting a link to Facebook, the police-run eBay account sold nitrous oxide – a substance included in the Psychoactive Substances Act – to a buyer who left feedback praising the police: "Excellent ebayer, quick delivery and great product."

While this seems strange and potentially illegal under the anti-legal highs bill, which was introduced in May of this year, it's technically above board. You're not allowed to sell laughing gas for recreational use, but you're fine if it's intended for its traditional industrial uses, i.e. in dentistry or to whip up cream for cakes. Which is why lots of NOS deliverymen no longer carry balloons with them; because if they're pulled over and found to be carrying hundreds of canisters but nothing else, there's no proof that they were planning to do anything illegal.

So the police were perfectly within the law. Thing is, the item's description states that it "was seized by the Police as evidence & now has to be sold", before reminding the potential buyer of the Psychoactive Substances Act. Which – to me, at least – sounds a lot like the police nabbed the canisters off someone they suspected of selling laughing gas for recreational use, before selling it on themselves via the very same loophole that laughing gas dealers tend to use.

That's mere speculation, of course, but one thing is a little more certain. As per the Psychoactive Substances Act, as repeated in the item's description, "It is a criminal offence to supply a psychoactive substance to another person if you are aware, or you are reckless as to whether the substance is likely to be consumed by the person to whom it is supplied (or by some other person) for its psychoactive affects."


How could the police know if they were selling to some innocent nan looking to make a pavlova, or to a kid who's going to nail a bunch of balloons to help him come down off half a gram of MD? They couldn't.

We reached out to the Devon and Cornwall Police press team to confirm that this was their eBay account and to ask why they were selling NOS.

They said: "It has come to our attention that some members of the public have raised concerns on social media about the sale of a box of nitrous oxide (NOS) chargers, which are used as propellant for cream dispensers. Some concerns have been received based on the public conjecture that NOS can be used for illegal, i.e. narcotic, purposes. A suitable warning around misuse of the item was included along with the sale details.

"We would like to make clear that the sale of NOS chargers is not prohibited in the UK, and that such items are widely and legally available both online and in retail outlets. On reflection, we regret placing these items for sale. Our Force Policy has been revised to ensure these items are destroyed and not sold. All similar items have been withdrawn from sale."

So there you have it: you can't buy NOS off the police any more, but you can buy it in any decent cookery shop. British drug policy in action.


The third episode of 'High Society', our documentary series about drugs in the UK, premieres in early December and is about the criminalisation of nitrous oxide.

More on VICE:

Understanding the New Urban British Teenager

Will Anyone Actually Bother Enforcing the Laughing Gas Ban?

What This Year's Global Drugs Survey Tells Us About Drug Use In the UK