As lockdown eases, it’s become clear that nitrous oxide is the new recreational drug of choice for many young people in Britain. But what does it do to users – and why is it legal to buy?
An epidemic of the recreational use of laughing gas – commonly called ‘hippy crack’ – is sweeping across the UK.
And the magnitude of the issue has been thrown into the spotlight following the relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions.
As groups have taken over parks and beaches, campaigners have been stunned by the sheer amount of discarded nitrous oxide canisters.
Known colloquially as ‘whippets’ or ‘chargers’, 236 of them were collected in just half an hour in a car park at Seaburn beach near Sunderland. During a clear-up of pleasure spot Longniddry Bents in East Lothian, 533 were found. And police in Swansea, South Wales arrested three people in a car with 1,800 canisters.
Users buy a £5 ‘cracker’ which has two ports. One connects to the canister and the other is covered with a balloon, and the gas is then inhaled from the balloon.
Policing the issue is a complex matter, as laughing gas is legal.
West Yorkshire police officer Sean Gomersall is spearheading a campaign to control the sale and access of the gas, including a government petition.
Speaking to RT, he explained: “These canisters are so popular because they’re easy to buy. eBay and Amazon sell them with little warning to users.
“The streets are littered with the canisters on a daily basis. At the minute, 24 chargers can be purchased for £15; this is a cheap high for youths without much risk.”
Nitrous oxide was created as an anaesthetic back in 1844, and is still used today for that purpose by dentists and during childbirth.
The other application is in catering where it’s used, for example, as a propellant to get whipped cream out of a can.
Despite it being legal, there have been 17 deaths related to the gas in the UK over the last three years.
London-based doctor Ondine Delaye is currently undertaking research on nitrous oxide for a PhD.
The academic said: “It seems to fragment consciousness by preventing brain regions from talking to each other like they normally do. You can feel out of your body, you hallucinate visually, hear sounds that don’t exist, or even completely forget where you are.”
Other research shows that short-term side effects can also include nausea, fever and vomiting. Police are particularly concerned if the gas is inhaled by drivers, which could lead to an accident.
There are worries that as lockdown continues to ease, usage will vastly increase across the UK as young people search for the feeling of euphoria hippy crack provides. And heavy users are at risk of frostbite, as the crackers get very cold when they release the gas.
One user spoke to RT and admitted to inhaling 1,500 canisters since being introduced to the drug.
Tom, 25, said, “It gives you a nice headrush type of feeling.
“It kind of relaxes you and make you feel good – and it only lasts 30 seconds. An orgasm doesn’t last long, but I’m sure we’d all admit it was worth it.
“Doing it with my friends, it just makes us laugh together. It’s generally a wholesome experience.”
And Dr. Delaye added: “It’s very unpredictable, but it’s all like a dream that wears off the second you breathe oxygen again.”
Not many long-term studies have been carried out, but a Dutch team found 64 young adults have been hospitalised in the last two years.
The gas is both colourless and odourless, and some experts claim heavy users can suffer from psychosis and depression.
Neurologist Barry Ruijter said, “There are some kids who use more than 100 balloons a day and insist it’s totally harmless.
“However, we believe it’s an addictive drug, even though that has yet to be scientifically proven. Hospitals and rehabilitation clinics are seeing more and more problem users.”
One particularly worrying element of their findings is that some heavy users are ending up paraplegic and confined to wheelchairs. This occurs because the gas causes the inactivation of vitamin B12.
Dr. Delaye added: “This is what happens in the context of anaesthesia where patients inhale 70 percent nitrous oxide and 30 percent oxygen.”
Nevertheless, there’s a strong view in some quarters that nitrous oxide is less harmful than alcohol, so shouldn’t be treated harshly by lawmakers.
The British government’s former chief drug adviser, Professor David Nutt, controversially said: “Its effect is over in a few minutes – you’re perfectly safe, you can go back home, you can drive, you’re not going to be mugged, you’re not going to have a hangover.”
And the expert also added that nitrous oxide is “a logical alternative to alcohol for those people who don’t want to be impaired and it’s less toxic and less addictive.”
This message is echoed by user Tom. He told RT, “We all know about the B12 depletion and the very, very rare anomaly cases of paralysis.
“I’ve done 1,500 chargers and at most, maybe had a tingly sensation at times in either my fingers or lips. But you just have common sense to know when to stop.
“Alcohol, on the other hand, has left me in very vulnerable states over the years, including in an ambulance once.
“Prohibition of alcohol in the US 100 years ago failed as it led to criminal gangs gaining control of the supplies. The same thing would happen with a blanket ban of nitrous oxide.”
That’s not to say the dangers aren’t real. The family of 15-year-old Alex Ryan from Tallaght, Dublin, know that only too well.
He had been out with friends when his parents received a call informing them that an unresponsive patient in hospital may be their son.
Nothing could have prepared them for what happened next.
Dad Mick recalled: “They had a tube in his nose and mouth and heart machines hanging out of him and I said ‘that’s not my son.’ But I went around to the right side of his bed, and I said ‘that’s him’ – and ran out of the room.”
Mother Aine continued: “They worked on Alex for 50 minutes but couldn’t bring him back and if they did, he would have been brain dead. Kids can’t be taking these [silver bullets], it’s too risky and dangerous.
“There are people burying their children for as little as a fiver.”
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