The fashion of recreational drugs changes from each year, each generation and each nation. What one person thinks is ‘all the rage’ might be to another person’s disgust. Whilst ecstasy, ketamine and cocaine will forever be in party goer’s heads, the rise of nitrous oxide in the UK is undoubtable. You only have to walk the post-party streets of Notting Hill Carnival, or even a house party in Bristol, to see hundreds of left-over canisters from an evening full of nos. Supposedly, this drug has been used recreationally for over 200 years but is better known in the medical world as a pain reliever or ‘laughing gas’. However, a recent report has suggested that nitrous oxide is responsible for a huge rise in neurological injuries, including nerve damage, in the UK. Let’s find out more.
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What is Nitrous Oxide?
Nitrous Oxide, Nos, balloons, or laughing gas is a dissociative drug sold in small metal canisters. If you’ve ever seen a bunch of people holding balloons at a party, slightly wobbling on their feet, and most likely laughing, then you’ll know what Nos is. Recreationally, nitrous oxide is taken out of the canisters, using an ice cream cracker, and inserted into balloons for people to slowly breathe in and out of. Whippets or crackers are there to safely release the highly pressured nitrous oxide gas into the balloon. The three steps are: canister to cracker to balloon. It is very dangerous to miss out on one of these steps as the pressure and cold temperature of the gas can damage your throat or skin. It’s important to realize that Nos is legal in most countries, because of its primary use in the world of cooking. The whippet or cracker, combined with the canisters, is commonly used as a whipping agent. Cream Chargers writes:
“Since their emergence in the 1900s, cream chargers have grown in popularity. They have been used for a variety of purposes, most notably in the food and beverage industry, due to their ability to safely and efficiently inject pressurised gas (nitrous oxide, or N2O) into a liquid and aerate it… Nitrous oxide canisters have a foil covering on the narrow end that must be broken to release the gas. This is typically accomplished with a sharp pin embedded into the whipped cream dispenser.
This is where the first issue with nitrous oxide begins, the fact that it is used so frequently for other reasons makes it extremely difficult to ban. Anyone can freely purchase a cracker, canisters, as well as some balloons, and have a wonderful time. But is it actually so great to experience nos?
What Nos Feels Like
Nos is probably one of the most euphoric party drugs there is, without including the likes of heroin of course. In fact, some people say that doing balloons is like experiencing heroin for a very short amount of time. You pop one canister worth of nitrous oxide into a balloon – maybe two if you’re feeling fruity – and you breathe in and out until the balloon is finished. Usually you won’t actually finish the balloon before falling to the floor or needing to lie down. The feeling is unlike most recreational drugs, which is probably why many use heroin as its closest familiar. In the world of medicine, nitrous oxide has an extremely important role as a sedative, helping to alleviate pain during medical procedures. NCBI writes:
“Nitrous oxide can be used for general anesthesia, procedural sedation, dental anesthesia, and to treat severe pain. Nitrous oxide’s potent analgesic properties can be useful in providing analgesia in settings such as the obstetrical ward or emergency department.”
It is this feeling of dissociation that makes Nos so enjoyable as a recreational drug. It reduces anxiety, takes you out of your body, reduces some sensory feelings, and also usually triggers laughter (hence the name ‘laughing gas’). If you’ve ever seen a friend of yours break a leg or an arm and have had to call an ambulance, the first action they’ll take is to administer nitrous oxide to reduce the pain. It really is no surprise how popular this drug has become – both due to the ease of access, as well as the feelings it gives. I have done nitrous oxide recreationally a bunch of times in my life, and I must admit it’s a feeling like no other.
For about 1 minute the world slows down, it almost feels like you can sense things before they happen, like your time travelling in a different realm from everyone else. Then, for a split second, you realize the truth. The truth about everything – life and the universe. It all makes sense. But then, the minute passes, the world speeds back up and you are sat on someone’s living room floor without even the slightest idea of what that realization was. Well, until you do another one, which is why they are quite addictive. I tried writing down the realization on my phone once, during a Nos trip, and it didn’t make any logical sense when I read it back. In a very enlightening article around the spiritual effects of Nos, Vorpal writes:
“Nitrous oxide can present you with the key to understanding the very nature of the universe. It brings about the same revelations that can be experienced by studying Taoism, and then allows you to surpass them to a level of comprehension that cannot be described in words.”
So with this in mind, you now hopefully understand a little better why people enjoy nitrous oxide. Be it for its spiritual effects, or simply just to fall into a laughing fit. But now we must delve into the situation surrounding Nos in the UK.
Nos In the UK
The United Kingdom may be a small country but – as Hugh Grant says in an inspired prime ministerial speech in the film Love Actually – it’s ‘a great one too’. In a YouGov poll it is estimated that 4 of every 10 UK citizens have taken recreational drugs in their life. In fact, according to a 2019-20 Crime Survey for England and Wales, around 9% of 16-24 years had taken nitrous oxide in the last year. This was a 6.1% increase from 2012-13. It is believed that the only nation in the world that consumes more Nos than the UK, is Holland.
As previously mentioned, nitrous oxide in the UK is easily accessed and much adored in the recreational drug world. However, when it comes to deaths caused by the substance, there have actually only been around 35 reported since 1993. You’re more likely to die by getting struck by lightning. In relation to other drugs, laughing gas is technically one of the safest. But recent reports have highlighted a different story.
The Nos Epidemic
Doctors in the UK are calling for a reduction of nitrous oxide use after a huge rise in spinal cord and nerve damaging injuries, including paralysis. The drug can deactivate vitamin B12 in the body, which is responsible for the production of myelin. Myelin is protecting fatty substance surrounding nerves in the body. As this protection is reduced, it puts users of Nos in a far more likely position to experience spinal cord damage, which is irreversible if not treated quickly and sufficiently. Dr Nikos Evangelou, an academic neurologist at the University of Nottingham, has warned of a possible epidemic based on what he has seen in hospitals:
“There is no doubt that we have seen an increase of cases, as this was almost unknown last year and now [we] see cases weekly… Terrifying to see paralysed young people from laughing gas canisters.”
In the last year or so, these kinds of Nos-related injuries are becoming more and more common. It is illegal to sell the drug for human consumption, it is not illegal to possess it. Plus, it is very difficult to know if someone is purchasing nitrous oxide for recreational consumption reasons, or to use in the kitchen. In fact, it is essentially impossible.
Those at risk of these neurological injuries are those who consume a great deal of Nos, but with its easy access and addictive traits this will likely only increase. However, it is important to note that those who use the substance irregularly – only a few times a year – are not in a high-risk category. In fact, as drugs go, Nos is one of the least dangerous. The issue, of course, is if people begin to become obsessed with it – which seems to be the case in the UK.
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