How laughing gas became our favourite drug
It’s the drug for people who don’t do drugs, but how safe is laughing gas? We found out.
It’s four in the morning, and an afterparty in a run-down student house is beginning to gather momentum. Amid the crowds of glazed-eyed revellers, two young men stand behind a wooden table, filling multi-coloured balloons from pressurised metal dispensers. “You see people inhaling from the balloons and then just sort of passing out”, Ben*, a former nitrous oxide dealer, tells me. “It’s like when you see people doing heroin in movies”. This, however, isn’t a scene from a debauched film script – it’s a house party on your average Friday night in Leeds, and it’s a trend that is becoming increasingly common in university towns across the country.
If you’re a student, you’ll be familiar with nitrous oxide, although you’ll probably know it as laughing gas. You’ve probably tried it yourself – in a recent Tab drugs survey, 45% of 5573 respondents said that they had. So why has this medical anaesthetic become the third-most popular drug, after weed and MD, among students in the UK?
Perhaps it’s the way you take it that makes laughing gas use seem so carefree. This isn’t a drug that you smoke – likewise, it isn’t injected into your veins or snorted up your nostrils. Nitrous oxide is sold in a whipped cream charger and released into a party balloon, from which the user inhales, as one might with helium at a children’s birthday party. Not only does it bring an entirely new meaning to the phrase ‘party drug’, but it gives it a playful innocence other drugs lack.
Nitrous oxide is actually illegal to sell for recreational purposes, but this hasn’t stopped enterprising young people taking advantage of the demand. “Mates of mine buy canisters off eBay for about £60, then sell balloons for 50p or £1 a pop”, Chris, a third-year student in London, informs me. “They make a killing. There are guys on Shoreditch High Street and at festivals who sell balloons for £2.50 each, which is a ridiculous mark-up. I end up kicking my way through the canisters on the walk home, so it must be selling well.”
Among many, the consensus seems to be that nitrous oxide is nothing more than a cheap, harmless thrill. “You theoretically transfer yourself to another place”, Ben tells me. “I’ve pretty much done everything else out there, and it’s the best feeling I’ve ever had.” Nitrous oxide can create a slow-motion euphoria that rarely lasts for longer than a minute – “I think that’s why it’s so moreish – the shortness of the trip in relation to the intensity.”
To the mainstream British press, nitrous oxide is ‘hippy crack’, a dangerous narcotic whose continued legality is baffling. Ben, however, says that he has never experienced negative effects, or even seen them in anyone else. Nitrous oxide, he tells me, is “not a crack man’s drug” – but, as with anything like this, things aren’t that cut-and-dry. In 2007, 23-year old Daniel Watts was found dead next to a large cylinder of the gas; in 2009, comedian Mark Cassidy asphyxiated doing laughing gas whilst watching porn. There have been 52 deaths associated with the drug since 1971, although no one has ever died solely from inhaling through a balloon.
So is laughing gas really as innocuous as it seems? “I had a bad experience once”, Chris says. “I‘d had about six balloons – I found myself getting really short of breath, and my heart was going crazy. But I sort of just lay there and tried to chill out.” Harry, a second-year student, told me a story about a friend of his: “He tried to do it straight from the tank, and my other friend grabbed the dial and opened it fully. The pressure knocked him off his feet – he claims that he went on a two-week trip to the Bahamas inside his head, but he woke up to us pulling mud out of his mouth from the puddle he’d face-planted into”.
This atypical use is the real danger with nitrous oxide. Experts are keen to draw a distinction between moderate use out of a balloon, which is relatively low risk, and excessive use or reckless methods, which harm and kill. “Using nitrous oxide is fairly common, but suffering serious harm from it seems rare,” says a spokesman for the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, founded by former government drug advisor Professor David Nutt. “Most users choose the balloon method, which helps limit the risks. For a careful person in good health, inhaling a balloon or two of nitrous oxide once in a while is unlikely to do any harm. One reason it’s less risky than other methods is that if you start to pass out, which is the first sign you’re depriving your brain of oxygen, you’ll drop the balloon and stop inhaling. It’s got an inbuilt mechanism to stop you asphyxiating. Until that point, the risk of damaging your brain is minimal.”
So how can it kill people? “The body and brain need oxygen. If someone passes out alone with a bag filled with nitrous oxide over their head, or with a hospital face mask on delivering the gas from a tank, irreversible damage and death only takes a matter of minutes. Also, inhaling directly from gas canisters and tanks can cause serious, disfiguring and even deadly injuries including frostbite and rupture of the lungs. Using the drug with friends around, and not getting creative about the method of use, will help keep the risks low.”
When used with caution, laughing gas does seem safer than pretty much everything else – although advocates of prohibition point to the deaths it has been linked to. A Home Office spokesman said there were no plans for a crackdown, and the whoosh of dispensers and jangle of canisters seem only to be becoming more common at universities across the country. For the time being, nitrous oxide remains readily available – and the whipped cream salesmen are laughing all the way to the bank.
*Names have been changed.