Confiscated butane canisters and "spice mix" – a synthetic cannabis – paraphernalia.
Hey, remember being 15, not being able to buy weed and getting turned out of every off-licence because your "European driving permit" didn't stop you sounding like a choirboy on a rollercoaster? If you were opportunistic, you may have stolen your parents' booze. If you had access to it, you may have bought some poppers or laughing gas and called it a (kind of half-arsed, shitty) day.
In Dubai, however, access to all those things is somewhat restricted, so instead, ex-pat teens with a passion for temporarily altering their brain chemistry have taken to inhaling butane gas from cans of lighter fluid, because why the hell not? This may come as a shock, but huffing the noxious fumes of a highly flammable liquid isn't particularly good for your health. It can freeze your lungs if you're not careful and at least six ex-pat teenagers have died from it in the last few years. With access to any fun-inducing chemicals severely restricted out there, I suppose you take what you can get, but inhaling butane still seems like the dumbest thing imaginable to me.
To try to understand why people don't just wait a couple of years to buy booze and not inhale deadly gas, I spoke to "Steph" (Dubai's authorities aren't that keen on drugs, so she didn't want to share her real name), who lived in Dubai for three years, before leaving her parents and two sisters there to come back to the UK. One of her sister's friends died a couple of years ago after inhaling butane gas.
VICE: When did you first hear about this whole huffing butane thing?
"Steph": The first time I saw it was when I was at my friend's flat in, I think, 2007. He went and sat in a store cupboard, did some butane and was just a mess after that. I guess the closest comparison you could make is to laughing gas, or something, but it lasts longer. You just stand there laughing and giggling and being confused. Your depth perception goes and you end up laughing at your hands a lot. Only, unlike laughing gas, it can kill you instantly, which isn't a lot of fun. And it's not subtle, either. Everyone on it looks so fucked. But, like, that horrible fucked where your eyes roll back into your head and you look like you're going to die.
Anton Tahmasian, who died in 2010 after using butane to get high.
Sounds like fun. Is it only big with ex-pat kids who go to private school?
As far as I know, yeah, because local kids can get hold of proper drugs and pretty much get away with whatever. If they get caught, they'll just ring an uncle who knows someone, then everything's fine. I think it's because all these ex-pat kids, who could readily buy drugs in the UK, arrive in Dubai and realise they literally can't get anything. So the easiest thing to get is a legal substance you can abuse. It's definitely a teenage thing, though. My sister's friend Anton – who died from huffing butane – was 16, and it definitely seems like something you stop doing when you're 18, because you can go out to clubs around that age if you have fake ID and blonde hair.
So it's like poppers or balloons, or any of those legal highs you can buy in the UK, basically?Yeah, it's the equivalent of the stuff you do when you're about 14 to 16 in the UK. But it seems a lot stranger, obviously. I'd been kicked out of school for selling weed the first time I saw my friend do it, so I wasn't completely unaware of drugs, but that just baffled me. It's like, this is fucking butane – you don't huff butane.
I remember you telling me about people getting high of Lynx as well?
Yeah, a load of people do that, too. You just spray a shit-load of Lynx into a shirt or a bag, or whatever, which somehow extracts the butane from the deodorant, then huff that.
How do the police treat it? Because if it's not illegal, I'm guessing they can't really do anything.
Well, Anton's family left pretty swiftly after he died because they didn't want any repercussions. But yeah, that's more because there was a party at their house where kids were drinking alcohol – which would have got them thrown in jail – rather than the butane thing.
So is there really nothing else you can get your hands on?
I mean, I lived in Dubai for two years and couldn't get a hold of any weed, alcohol, coke – nothing – that whole time. And, to be honest, you don't really want to, either, because they're so strict on that kind of stuff out there. Mind you, my friend got caught smoking a spliff on the beach and was sent to jail for two years, but ended up doing her time in the family jail, which sounded like luxury. She had a TV in her cell and it sounded like basically living at home without having to pay rent or buy food.
Oh, that's alright then. Have shop-keepers cottoned on? Has anyone stopped selling butane canisters to kids?
No, you can still get it anywhere at any age. Most of the mosques have little shops next to them and you can buy anything in there. They don't ID you for cigarettes past the age of about 12, they don't ID you for glue and they don't ID you for paint, so I doubt they'll be IDing anyone for lighter fluid. A lot of the places deliver, as well. So you can be sitting at home, call up the shop, and they'll deliver the butane to you on a bike.
I never would have thought you could get drug delivery service in Dubai. So is it always recreational – at parties and stuff – or do people end up getting hooked and doing it before school and that kind of thing?
Yeah, people get addicted and do it all the time – before school, in break time, even at the back of class. You can do it anywhere because it just smells like – well, you know what lighter fluid smells like. No one's going to suspect anything and the smell disappears almost instantly.
How exactly do you do it? Surely huffing a rag in the back of a classroom is pretty obvious.
No, it's different with the stuff in the actual lighter fluid canisters. You know there's that nib on the top that you poke into lighters to refill them? You put that bit in between your two front teeth, tilt your head forward so your chin's nearly on your chest, then push the bottle up so the butane releases and hits the top of your mouth over your tongue. If you do it at the wrong angle, it'll go straight down your throat and freeze your lungs, which is how people die from it.
Sounds dark. Is it brought up much in the media over there?
Not really. I mean, it's a hard thing to cover, because – in the case where Anton died, anyway – all the kids at the party were so terrified of the police that no one ended up giving a proper statement. So there's not much in police records and nobody will talk directly to the media there about it, either.
Is there any other disturbing stuff kids are using in Dubai to get high?
Nothing quite as shocking as inhaling butane, no. There's a thing called "spice", which is basically synthetic weed. It mostly makes people kind of giggly and high, but I've see some people properly freak out on it. One of my friends smoked a load, then disappeared, and I eventually found him in a bathroom screaming about how everything in there was too white for him. Then we got in a taxi and he started shouting again that we were going too fast, when we were only going 20mph, and just generally having a huge break down.
Well, the problem with the legal highs in Dubai is that they mix everything with all sorts. They smoke this really harsh tobacco and mix it with stuff they call herbal cannabis and all sorts of other weird stuff. So I think it just depends on the mix you get. My friend obviously got a bad one.
Obviously. Urgh, fuck ever doing any legal drugs in Dubai. Thanks, Steph!
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jamie_clifton
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