In recent years, the hiss of nitrous oxide canisters has been as common a sound across festivals fields as the music. Free from the sinister cultural baggage of other drugs, balloons have fostered an almost cuddly reputation, with even the most ardently anti-drugs puritan happily spending entire evenings chuffing on laughing gas. Silver pods rolling under foot, stretched balloons in hand, NOS has ruled the muddy field and the rain-lashed pavement in recent years.
Last summer the government announced its ban on psychoactive substances which aimed to put a stop to all that. The bill, published by Theresa May, made it illegal to produce, distribute, sell or supply "new psychoactive substances" in Britain – explicitly including nitrous oxide. The balloon, for lack of a better metaphor, burst. Hippy crack season should, in strictly legal terms, be over.
But the war on balloons didn't begin this year. In fact, despite them being a legal high, fruitless attempts at restricting their use has been present for years now. Many festivals have told punters for years they aren't allowed to bring dispensers and balloons through the gates. In August 2015, Lambeth council became the first to ban use of nitrous oxide, threatening users with £1000 fines if caught using them, and citing litter as the main reason for the ban. Similarly the police have made efforts to curb use, threatening to confiscate canisters and hit 'unlicensed vendors' with as much as two years in prison.
Mostly, though, that seems to have made fuck all difference. There have been very few reported arrests for selling laughing gas. Throughout all of last summer, laughing gas seemed as present as ever. The streets remained littered with hundreds of empty chrome capsules with no one in particular seeming to do anything about it.
So is it going to be any different this time round? Is anyone going to enforce this ban?
We got in touch with the Home Office to ask them just how strict this whole thing was actually going to be. They were pretty adamant, "We are clear that all crimes reported to the police should be taken seriously, investigated and, where appropriate, taken through the courts and met with tough sentences." Obviously, we didn't expect anything less, but are balloons at festivals and in nightclubs?
When I spoke to a promoter from Bristol, who wanted to remain anonymous so as not to damage the reputation of any of the clubs he works with, the message seemed to be that clubs actually were rattled by the prospect of the ban. Referring to one club who actually sold balloons he told me the venue had "used [balloons] as a method to make money in the same way as drinks behind the bar," he seemed to think fear of revoked licenses would force them to stop selling nitrous oxide completely. He said he's seen a significant decline in balloon use in even the most previously prolific spots in Bristol, and believes they'll continue to enforce a much stricter ban on laughing gas inside and outside their venues - "100%, they'd be idiots not to".
This paranoia was reflected across the board. In fact, many of the venues and promoters I reached out to were reluctant to speak on the subject at all for fear of it affecting their license.
A representative of the festival MADE Birmingham reiterated this determination, yet did claim this stance against nitrous oxide wasn't actually anything new. "We will continue to confiscate on the door and discourage sellers outside of the venue," they told me. "Nothing will change as our festival has a zero tolerance approach to all drugs including so called legal highs—and despite the previous grey area on the matter, we took the same approach with nitrous oxide."
I hate them being sold at our club nights. People just hang around doing loonies while the main room looks depleted.
Although there were some nightclubs that used to sell balloons, most larger events and festivals see them as a nuisance, irrespective of the law. "We don't have as big a problem in Birmingham compared to what I see inside and around London festivals," the MADE representative added. I asked them whether they thought this summer could spell the end for nitrous oxide use: "We shall see. It will be be down to the police to enforce the law, and we hope similar action is taken on other issues such as street drug dealers and legal highs."
The anonymous promoter I spoke with felt similarly, telling me: "I hate them being sold at our nights. They detract from the night. People just spend the night hanging around doing loonies while the main room looks depleted." It may be that many promoters see the ban as a blessing, a way to stop their clubs looking like cracky children's parties.
If we consider the terrifying ease with which clubs are seeing their licenses revoked, for everything from noise complaints to drug-related incidents, it's easy to see that venues and promoters are playing it safer than ever before. Add to that the fact that nightlife professionals largely see nitrous oxide as a cause of litter and empty dancefloors, then this could finally be the summer that sees them disappearing, at least in part, from the streets of the UK.
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