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‘Obscene’ two-year term for street dealer in laughing gas

Campaigner condemns sentence for firm boss with drug in lock-up

31 August, 2017 — By William McLennan

Laughing gas cannisters Pic ProMO-CYMRU

A TWO-year prison term handed to a young father convicted of dealing laughing gas has been criticised by drug reform campaigners.

Sonny Chapman, 27, was sentenced at Wood Green Crown Court on Friday, having been found guilty by a jury who heard that police raided a lock-up and found 14,000 doses of the drug, which was outlawed last year.

The court was told that, as well as giving users a euphoric hit lasting for a “matter of seconds”, the pressurised canisters of nitrous oxide had a “number of useful purposes”, including use by pastry chefs to create whipped cream.

Mr Chapman, registered director of SB Catering Supplies, based in Warren Street, had told the court he was legally supplying the canisters for use in food preparation.

But the jury unanimously rejected his claim and on August 4 found him guilty of possession with intent to supply under the Psychoactive Substance Act, which came into effect in May 2016.

Sonny Chapman

The court heard that Mr Chapman’s activities began to be investigated when officers on patrol saw a “group of young people” gathered around his car in Gray’s Inn Road at 4am on September 9 last year. They found around 400 canisters in his vehicle and decided to search his home address in Islington, where they discovered details of a self-storage unit that contained thousands of canisters.

Recorder Rosamund Horwood-Smart QC said: “Nitrous oxide is a substance that has a number of useful purposes in our society. However, it is a substance that when misused or abused can be euphoric; a good effect for some, but it can cause harm in people’s mental states.”

Defence counsel Yimi Yangye told the court: “In relation to all the drugs we have there has been extensive research, but we don’t have that in relation to laughing gas.” She added: “What is quite clear: you have to consume a large amount of it for it to have any effect. In order for there to be a significant high there has to be a consumption of a lot. There are a number of other psychoactive substances that seem to have far more damaging effects.”

She said that Mr Chapman was “taking steps to change his lifestyle” and was “seeking to wind down” his catering supplies business. Sentencing the father-of-two to a total of two years and four months in prison, Recorder Horwood-Smart said he was at the “lower end of a leading role” in a drug-dealing operation, adding: “You set up a company specifically to receive large quantities of this drug. You were not only dealing with these items from your storage unit, but you were also out and about supplying on the streets.”

Speaking after the hearing, Neil Wood, a former undercover police officer and member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said the sentence was “obscene”.

Mr Wood, who spent a decade working undercover to catch drug dealers, but now campaigns for the legalisation and regulation of the drug market, told the New Journal: “This is appalling. There is a recent warning that jail numbers are going up, and moral panic drug laws are filling up the jails. I’ve had prosecutions for GBH or sexual offences get less than 28 months. “It is the tabloid press which created the moral panic about laughing gas, and the ban on NPS [novel psychoactive substances] generally has made most of the drugs and our society less safe.”

From birth drug to ‘hippie crack’

* What is laughing gas?

Nitrous oxide has long been used by the medical profession. It is a component of Entonox – or “gas and air” – given to mothers during labour. More recently, it has been used by partygoers, who typically inhale it from a balloon, and report a short-lived feeling of euphoria.

* Why is it called a “legal high”?

The use of the drug was legal until the introduction of the Psychoactive Substances Act last year. While it’s still legal to possess laughing gas, it is now an offence to supply it.

* Is it harmful?

The main adverse health impacts come from the risks of oxygen deprivation, which has been linked to a number of deaths. Dizziness can affect a user’s judgement. The sight of small metallic canisters lying discarded on the pavement is a more visible impact of its widespread use.

* Why do people think it should be legal?

Campaigners believe that the dangers have been wildly overstated by the tabloid press, who labelled the drug “hippie crack”. They compare the impacts to that of tobacco and alcohol, calling for all drugs to be regulated in a similar way to prevent the market being controlled by criminals, who are often associated with violence.

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