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‘Everyone’s gagging for it’ – how Britain got high on nitrous oxide

·14 min read

Laughing gas was the lockdown high of choice for many young people. Now empty canisters are everywhere, and dealers are hitting the streets with card readers. Will a government crackdown burst the balloon?


Barry Smith spent this summer clinking as he walked. The 26-year-old painter from Devon sold nitrous oxide at four UK festivals. Before each event, he loaded his van with 20 boxes containing 480 canisters, bought online at 25p each, and hundreds of balloons. (This is considered small-time in the nitrous oxide racket.) His pricing is flexible: a balloon base rate of two for £5 (a markup of 1,000%) or five for £10. But prices can plummet to zero for mates or skyrocket for strangers once he’s running low.

Standing largely in one spot, holding a nitrous dispenser, or “cracker”, that resembles a coffee flask, Barry (not his real name) handed balloon after balloon to revellers attracted by a high-pitched hissing noise. He used the cracker to dispense the gas into latex balloons, while his girlfriend handled the payments, either in cash or by using a card machine borrowed from a friend’s ice-cream company. “It’s like a family business,” he jokes. Trade is brisk. “People just swarm at you – everyone’s gagging for it.”

Barry’s main objective was simply to cover the cost of a festival ticket, make some pocket money and have fun. For him, part of the attraction is chatting to wasted partygoers (he also has no problem getting high on his own supply). “I’d say we made about 600 quid profit at each festival,” he says. “It’s crazy that people spend all that money for such a short high.”

As for festival security, Barry says: “You just try and be a bit sly.” His van is rarely checked at the gate. Once, he was standing in the middle of the crowd and all the whooshing and huffing attracted a steward’s attention. Barry saw security pushing through the crowd. “I just put the cracker down my trousers and acted normally,” he says. When the stewards reached him, they walked straight past.

Nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, or “nos”, a relatively niche drug for decades, is now the second most popular drug among 16- to 24-year-olds behind cannabis, according to the Office for National Statistics. Its 2019/20 England and Wales Crime Survey reported that 8.7% of 16- to 24-year-olds had taken it, up from 6.1% in 2012/2013. It is very much a young person’s drug: two in three users are under 24.

As people receded from public spaces during lockdown, piles of little silver canisters that once contained nitrous oxide cropped up instead. They were in parks, on roads, on beaches. “It’s a teenage drug,” says Becky, a 22-year-old from Stoke-on-Trent, who began taking it when she was 14. (She, like all the users I speak to, is not using her real name.) “There was nowhere for kids to go – they couldn’t go to the pub, they wouldn’t stay at home. You’d see them hanging out in the streets doing nos.”

Politicians helped to whip up a moral panic, uniting MPs from both main parties. In July last year, Labour MP Rosie Duffield criticised young people for “indulging a quick lockdown high”, arguing that it promoted antisocial behaviour. Home secretary Priti Patel has promised to take tough action on the gas, which is likely to include criminalising possession, and in September ordered a second review into its effects (a first in 2015 did not see sufficient evidence for harm to justify criminalising possession).

But will a crackdown work? Since the government first banned sales for the recreational use of nitrous oxide in 2016, large numbers of dealers have emerged – from small-scale teen sellers to mid-level festival entrepreneurs and a minority of gang-affiliated dealers.

And it is young people who have staked out control of the trade.

Today, nitrous oxide is more readily available than ever, says Harry Sumnall, professor in substance use at Liverpool John Moores University. If the Home Office does clamp down on it further, drug policy experts – many of them former government advisers – fear that this risks criminalising the many thousands of young people who use it. “I can’t see the enforcement approach doing anything positive,” said Steve Rolles, of the non-profit Transform Drug Policy Foundation. “It could cause a lot of harm: increasing risky behaviours [and] criminalising young people, which is far more dangerous than nitrous anyway.”

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Moral panic aside, nitrous oxide is not illegal to possess. It is a staple of commercial kitchens, mostly used to whip cream. But around 2013, it began taking off as a mainstream party drug. The gas is commonly dispensed into balloons and inhaled, and is popular with young people for its lack of smell or after-effect – users are totally sober in minutes. It induces a short, 30-second high. “You get a weird sense of detachment and giggliness,” says Josh, 26, an occasional user. Many people experience a “helicopter effect” – the feeling of a chopper thundering overhead. A minority experience visual hallucinations.

In the early 2010s, young footballers including Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling were captured allegedly taking the then “legal high”. Tabloids began labelling it “hippy crack”, attacking celebrity users and complaining of litter from its mercury bullet bulbs.

When the government banned the sale of it for recreational use in 2016, under the Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA), limits were placed on buying boxes in bulk. But because it could be legally used in catering, casual purchases proved impossible to suppress. An estimated 25% of corner shops, not to mention websites such as Amazon, sell boxes, often for just 20p a canister (playful reviews on the online giant’s site include such lines as, “I whipped a lot of cream with this” and, “The cream tasted so nice, it made my head feel all fuzzy”).

I was having a balloon when I woke up. I felt brain dead and getting to the point where I’d struggle to read

There are stiff penalties for selling nitrous oxide for recreational purposes. Sellers found guilty can face up to seven years in prison or an unlimited fine. Although prison terms are rare, this February a 24-year-old dealer from Newcastle, who also sold cannabis, was jailed for 27 months. There are currently no penalties for possession (except in prisons).

After a small dip in usage in 2017 and 2018 following the introduction of the PSA, consumption jumped back up in 2019; the main legacy of the act was to usher nitrous off the streets and into private house parties. When Heather, 23, was studying at a northern university before the pandemic, she says every party worth attending included a “nos bar”. When she and her housemates threw their own bash, they bought 600 canisters from a dealer, set up a “till” on a table, and worked in shifts, selling balloons for £2.50 a hit. The venture paid for the party’s speakers, decorations, smoke machine and strobe lighting. “We got proper supermarket-style queues,” Heather says.

Some sellers take peddling nitrous to more extreme levels – treating it like a day job. James, a 19-year-old student from London, started selling nos aged 16. A couple of his friends were already cashing in and he wanted a part of the action. His friends’ suppliers loaned him 10 boxes on credit – his first injection of venture capital. Soon, he was travelling across England by train, where he found eager customers at university parties, underground raves and festivals. He claims that one weekend he earned £20,000 by bribing a festival bouncer, smuggling in tens of thousands of canisters and working the crowds. (I put the figure to several other sellers – they say it sounds believable.) “It can be very profitable when you buy in bulk,” James says. He would stuff coins and notes into his boxer shorts, his makeshift cash register, and later stash the money in his room – a bank account was deemed too risky.

James found he could easily tap into a market of students and casual users from affluent backgrounds – “The Oxford white kids who wanted coke and nos. I’m sort of like an upper-class drug dealer,” he says. He’d drop his Snapchat handle in university groups and watch his phone ping with orders.

***

Nitrous oxide, N20, was discovered in 1772 by the English chemist Joseph Priestley, who called it a “remarkable species of air”. The gas was popularised by chemist Humphry Davy, as both an anaesthetic in dentistry and an intoxicant at upper-class parties of the late Georgian era. (In 1800, Davy reported himself “stamping or laughing” after inhaling, and experiencing “a highly pleasurable thrilling” through his body.) People have continued to take nitrous oxide both medically and recreationally ever since (think of Charlie Chaplin’s 1914 comedy Laughing Gas, set in a dentist’s office) before it surfaced in mainstream British culture in the 2010s.

It has never presented a major public health danger. An average of four people a year died from nitrous oxide abuse in England and Wales between 2010 and 2019, “which is of course a tragedy but absolutely insignificant compared with other drug-related deaths,” says Sumnall of Liverpool John Moores. In comparison, the UK recorded 7,423 alcohol-related deaths in England and Wales in 2020, and 64,000 people in England died of smoking-related causes in 2019. Nitrous oxide deaths are commonly via asphyxiation – when users inhaled with a bag over their head or straight from a pressurised canister.

Nick Hickmott, who works in early intervention and harm reduction for teenagers in Kent, says there is a lot of misinformation about nitrous oxide, largely because of tabloid media coverage. “Young people are coming to us with the idea that nitrous oxide can freeze your brain and you can die,” he says. “That kind of scaremongering, and lack of education, has perpetuated myths.” Hickmott’s role is to talk frankly with teenagers about drugs and their potential harms – not to encourage use, but to cut through to the facts.

However, there are other dangers. People might fall and injure themselves, and the gas can cause a B12 deficiency, leading, in a small number of users, to the development of peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage). About 3.3% of all users experience pins and needles, a symptom of nerve damage, according to a 2019 analysis of three years of Global Drug Survey data.

We know really heavy use can have some health effects – but so would drinking 40 cups of coffee a day

Then there’s the problem of overuse. At an after-party about 18 months ago, James, the young seller, was sitting around a table in a student flat. Everyone was having fun, laughing and slamming hundreds of balloons. Then he saw something vigorously shaking at the edge of his vision: it was his friend having a seizure. They called an ambulance. “It was really scary,” he says. The friend was OK, but doctors warned he had nearly had a stroke – the cause wasn’t clear.

James, shaken by the experience, began to confront his own habits. “I would be having a balloon when I woke up,” he says. It affected his concentration: “I felt brain dead, getting to the point where I’d struggle to read.” He says that since he cut down, his mental clarity has bounced back.

“We know really heavy use can have some health effects,” says Niamh Eastwood, executive director of drugs and harm reduction charity Release. “But that’s like coffee: if you were to drink 40 cups a day, you would not be in a very good place.”

***

Nitrous oxide is here to stay. So given its widespread use and relative safety, government policy should prioritise “smart education over blunt regulation”, says Adam Winstock, a consultant psychiatrist, addiction medicine specialist and UCL professor. But this is a path the government seems to be careening away from.

Before David Cameron’s government outlawed the selling of it for recreational use, Joshua, then a charity worker, headed to Parliament Square, where he joined a group of about 100 people – other students and older hippies – protesting against the proposed law with a “mass inhalation” event. People huffed balloons against the clangs of Big Ben, as police officers stood by.

Joshua, now 30, thinks further criminalisation would be bad news. “If somebody wants to get a tattoo or piercing, you say, ‘That’s their body, that’s their choice.’” In his view, the same principle should hold for drugs, but he believes that too often politicians take an “infantilising attitude” to people getting high. What’s more, given the sustained popularity of nitrous oxide, it doesn’t seem to work.

Drug experts now expect the government to reclassify nitrous oxide under the Misuse of Drugs Act – criminalising possession and increasing the penalties. A Home Office spokesperson points out the possible serious long-term effects of using it, such as vitamin B12 deficiency and anaemia. They add that because of its popularity with young people, “it is right that we ask independent experts to consider potential harms”. Yet given its legitimate use in catering and medicine, it is unclear how criminalisation will be enforced. “There’s a huge loophole,” Sumnall says. Some court trials have already collapsed over confusion about its exemptions.

This is all part of the wider story of Britain’s war on drugs, in which UK policy has drawn intense international criticism. This month, Helen Clark, chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy and the former New Zealand prime minister, criticised it as “costly and self-defeating”, adding: “You need the Home Office to get off its high horse of oppression and prohibition, and say: ‘Look, we’ve had this wrong, our prisons are thronged with people on drug offences, marginalised swathes of people.’”

Young people who use nitrous casually are horrified that a short high could wreck their lives. “The idea that someone out with their friends might have a gram of weed on them or a few nos canisters, and then, if they’re caught, that’s them done – that’s way too harsh a punishment,” says one of the users I speak to.

Chandos, a 27-year-old photography assistant in London, fears a new law will target young people of colour and the underprivileged. When he was 20, before selling recreational nitrous oxide was illegal, Chandos used to hawk it to friends for spare cash at house parties. The government’s impending plans would have jeopardised his future. “It criminalises specific types of people – I guess me, because I used to sell it, and because I’m a black male,” he says. Black people in England and Wales are already seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. “So now, with potentially heightened stop and searches, it’s giving more power to fewer people with less accountability,” Chandos says.

The young people I spoke to were not surprised by the Home Office’s apparent plans – on nitrous oxide, or wider drug policy. For them, it cements their complete lack of trust in the government. And they are not alone. Drug policy experts say criminalising possession would prove a huge waste of police time.

Barry, the festival seller, thinks Patel’s rhetoric is all hot air. What’s to get stressed about, he asks: “It’s just a little bit of a buzz, innit,” he says. “If they started putting massive fines on it, obviously I wouldn’t do it.” Others don’t sound so easily deterred. If Amazon and corner shops are still stocking it, many will risk it, hoping to outfox the police. “If the government cracks down, I don’t really care,” says Katie, another dealer I speak to. She has sold at festivals for five years because “it’s such easy money”.

In the meantime, street pedlars are doing a roaring trade. At midnight in Shoreditch, London, I came across a platoon of a dozen young boys standing 100 yards from three police officers in fluorescent jackets. They clutched balloons to their mouths, chatted to girls and sold nos. One seller, who looked no older than 21, held a 580g Gold Whip N2O canister – coveted among sellers for its quick dispensing – under his arm.

“How many for £5?” I asked.

“Two,” he replied, “but you have to find your own balloons.”

Some names have been changed.

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