A street vendor sells balloons filled with nitrous oxide in Amsterdam. Photo by Annette Birschel/picture alliance via Getty Images.
The Dutch government is banning the recreational use of laughing gas over fears it can cause severe nerve damage, as well as the drug’s role in hundreds of car crashes. Laughing gas, or nitrous oxide, has become a popular drug among young people in Europe. It is inhaled through a balloon and creates a short, euphoric, dissociative hit. A relatively harmless drug in small doses, it’s become increasingly prevalent at parties and festivals over the last decade, but experts fear the drug is being used in increasingly risky ways.
Authorities in the Netherlands, where 37 percent of clubbers regularly use the drug, are concerned about a rising number of children using it, alongside reports of alarming health risks linked to heavy use and its involvement in road traffic accidents. Confirming the ban on the, distribution, sale and possession of nitrous oxide, which will be introduced in January 2023, Maarten Van Ooijen, the Dutch state secretary for health, said: “The recreational use of nitrous oxide leads to enormous health risks. In addition, the safety of non-users is also at stake. We have seen enough reports in the news that terrible accidents have happened due to road users using laughing gas.”Police allege laughing gas played a part in 1,800 road traffic accidents in the Netherlands between 2018 and 2021, including 63 fatal collisions, even though there is currently no way for police to test if a driver is intoxicated with the drug. Drug experts at the Utrecht-based Trimbos Institute said there has been growing use of nitrous oxide among 12-14 year olds, and doctors have reported rising cases of heavy nitrous oxide users suffering deficiency of vitamin B12, which can affect the brain, spinal cord and nerves, because of inhaling the gas.Changes in the way laughing gas is supplied is believed to be increasing problematic use by making the drug cheaper and more abundant. The most common way of filling balloons with nitrous oxide is by using metal, finger-length chargers (“whippets”) containing 8g of the gas, which are often discarded on streets. But now users are increasingly filling balloons using super-size cylinders containing 640g of nitrous oxide.
Most nitrous oxide users take the drug now and then, and in a relatively harmless way, but doctors say they are coming across extreme cases. In the Netherlands, people have been buying 2,000g mega-tanks and dispensing the gas into balloons from their homes. The tanks cost between €40-50 (£35-44, $42-52) and fill around 150 balloons. In the two years after the emergence in 2017 of these tanks, the Dutch Neurologists’ Association found that 64 people, with an average age of 22, had been treated for partial spinal cord injuries due to nitrous oxide abuse. A 2021 Dutch study documented heavy use of nitrous oxide among a group of young Dutch-Moroccans living in Amsterdam. Some had started using laughing gas in Morocco, where the drug is popular with young people, but had stepped up their use of laughing gas after using the 2,000g tanks and reported neurological symptoms including severe paralysis. Some members of the group went on solo laughing gas bingeing sessions, getting through three 2,000g tanks in one day. One man used eight 2,000g tanks on a day-long binge. “None of the young people interviewed said they had a limit,” said the study. “Some enter a timeless vacuum during their nitrous oxide binge where hours and days seem to merge into one long trip.” One interviewee told researchers: “You fall asleep with a balloon in your mouth, wake up after an hour and a half, and go on with balloons.”
The group, a mix of men and women, told researchers they became addicted to laughing gas to relieve boredom, to seek out relaxation with friends and to suppress psychosocial stress and negative thoughts. The study also noted the rise in Amsterdam of “balloon hookers”, women who have sex with men in exchange for nitrous oxide. One medical case study in Canada noted a man who was regularly using 400 8g chargers a day before he was treated with naltrexone, a drug usually used in treating heroin addiction.In September Jackass star Steve-O revealed he had once gone through 600 nitrous oxide chargers in 24 hours. In the UK nitrous oxide is legal to possess but is banned for sale for use as a drug. Government drug advisors are currently considering whether to change the law on nitrous oxide. There were 56 deaths linked to nitrous oxide in England and Wales between 2001 and 2020, 45 of those registered since 2010. Nitrous oxide is legitimately used in hospitals and by dentists as a sedative and anaesthetic. It’s combined with oxygen in the “gas and air” given to reduce pain during childbirth. It is also used in the catering industry to create whipped cream. Harry Sumnall, professor of substance use at Liverpool John Moores University, said the new Dutch law will be hard to enforce. “As nitrous oxide has recognised catering, industrial and medical uses, the Dutch government faces the challenge of how to prohibit sales to individuals for non-exempt purposes, whilst facilitating legitimate sales. Already there are suggestions of pragmatic compromise, where small metal catering cartridges will continue to be sold, despite having high potential for diversion. So perhaps the new legislation will specifically target larger volume canisters. “This is also likely to have implications for other European countries, as Dutch suppliers are the primary source of large canisters in countries such as the UK, including through domestic distributors.”