This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
“The atmosphere of the highest of all possible heavens, must be composed of this gas.”
When Robert Southey inhaled nitrous oxide – aka laughing gas – from a silk bag handed to him by Humphry Davy, his reaction was as florid as one might expect from a future Poet Laureate. It was 1799 and Southey was one of Davy’s many guinea pigs that year. The young chemist and inventor invited some of the era’s most brilliant minds to Bristol’s Pneumatic Institution medical research facility, for an impromptu philosophical salon-cum-scientific experiment, that would form part of his published research into nitrous oxide’s effects.
Fast forward 241 years and British people are still in thrall to this briefly euphoric, giggly gas: just swap a silk bag for a balloon, and an 18th-century laboratory for a canister strewn park bench or forest rave and panicked tabloid headlines about a new drug on the scene called “hippy crack”.
Nitrous oxide is the country’s third most popular illegal drug and, following a tirade of negative lockdown headlines, the so-called “gateway drug of the summer” was yesterday the subject of a Parliamentary debate.
So why does the UK – its drug users, its press and its politicians – continue to be obsessed with laughing gas?
During last night’s hearing Rosie Duffield, Labour MP for Canterbury, called for the start of a national conversation on “the use of nitrous oxide and the harms it can cause”. She called it a “gateway drug”, citing associated risks including instant addiction, paralysis, hallucinations, irreversible nerve damage and seemingly young people driving dangerously around her Whitstable constituency. She called for tighter restrictions on the sale of the drug, rather than punishing those who use it, as well as greater education if we are to ensure “this year’s zeitgeist for nitrous oxide doesn’t turn into a national disgrace.”
An honest discussion and information about the risks of nitrous is a good idea, Harry Sumnall, Professor of Substance Use at the Public Health Institute, told VICE News. “But an honest discussion about nitrous would acknowledge the pleasure most people get from its use. It would acknowledge that most people are using it at parties, festivals, and during lockdown events without experiencing harm.”
‘Nos’, as it’s also called, is especially popular among young people. Just under one in ten 16 to 24-year-olds in England and Wales used laughing gas in 2018/19 (second only to cannabis), with 4.1 percent of 11 to 15-year-olds also taking the substance in the last year. According to the Global Drug Survey – which collates information from drug takers around the world – the English are the second most prolific nitrous oxide users behind Holland, with 42.6 percent of those questioned using it, closely followed by Australians.
Despite this rising prevalence of use, nitrous oxide has been mentioned on just 35 death certificates in England and Wales in 24 years, between 1993 and 2017. According to evidence gathered by the National Programme on Substance Misuse Deaths based at St Georges Hospital in London, most of these deaths involved abnormal ways of using nitrous oxide, including asphyxiation after putting bags over heads, death by suicide, use of surgical masks and inhaling from large cannisters.
But the reality is that you are more likely to die from a lightning strike than from inhaling laughing gas. Deaths related to nitrous oxide have an annual death rate of 1.46 people per year, while a 30-year analysis of UK lightning deaths reported 58 fatalities, an average of 1.93 per year. Put in the context of alcohol, there were 7,551 deaths related to alcohol-specific causes in 2018 alone.
After analysing its risk, drug charity Drug Science this week described nitrous oxide as a “remarkably safe” substance.
But what do the users of this drug think about the nationwide fuss?
VICE News spoke to a number of recreational Nos users on an online safer drug use forum. All of whom regularly bought from the internet in advance of a planned social event. For them, balloons were part of their sesh architecture, along with alcohol and drugs such as ketamine, MDMA, acid or cocaine. Ryan, 25, from London, used to buy from a legal website but they stopped delivering to his address once he moved to residential halls to start an MA degree.
Undeterred he scoured Gumtree and easily found a couple of guys who deliver. He normally buys four boxes of canisters a time – £12.50 each plus a delivery fee. “They weren’t a big thing in my group until maybe two years ago,” Ryan said. “Now any time there’s a sesh planned, one of the first things asked is, “who’s ordering balloons?” It’s a nice way to amplify the effects of whatever else I’ve already taken.”
Frank is 23, lives in Cambridgeshire, and would normally do balloons of nitrous oxide at house parties or small gatherings when he’s smoking cannabis. But lockdown restrictions changed that. “We're socialising more outside in parks at night, as we can't have friends home,” he told VICE News.
Frank insists his friends collect their used canisters, but it’s been the littering of these small, bullet shaped silver or plastic chargers that really stirred the soupy ire of the local British press this year. A quick search for ‘laughing gas’ on news aggregation service News Now finds headlines about dumped canisters in local papers everywhere from Somerset’s Bridgewater Mercury to the East Lothian Courier. Ireland has experienced its own tabloid Nos hype – fueled by use and littering in Dublin communities and the death of a 15-year-old Alex Ryan-Morrissey that is being attributed by his parents to nitrous oxide. The death prompted the Irish government to add nitrous oxide to its list of dangerous drugs and to call for an official report into the craze.
When they are not being made into posh art, nitrous oxide canisters have become indelibly associated with the illegal raves that took place across the country in defiance of lockdown, with a shot of discarded chargers as ubiquitous as a clickbait-friendly inclusion of ‘hippy crack’ in the headline.
“Whereas stories might once have been around young people drinking in parks, that narrative has been replaced by nitrous oxide. It’s highly visible - people are inflating and deflating balloons, there’s the sound [of the balloon being filled] and particularly the litter,” said Sumnall. He said the current preoccupation with nitrous oxide could be an indicator of deeper social anxieties of those complaining about it: “It’s a very visual indicator of perhaps people’s wider feelings about flouting lockdown, and perhaps a symbol of people’s frustrations.”
Much of the furore over Nos lies in a confusing legal status that sums up the flat-footedness of British drug policy. Nitrous oxide is legal as a sedative and anaesthetic (it’s used with oxygen as the “gas and air” given to many mothers while giving birth) and is also used by the catering industry typically to whip cream. Possession is not a crime. But supply for recreational purposes was banned under the Psychoactive Substances Act in 2016. Despite this, boxes are widely available for sale – typically in multiples of 24 – on Ebay, and catering websites with names like www.directcream.co.uk. People are also willing to pay teams of entrepreneurial Nos delivery drivers a premium to supply them to their front door.
Of course part of the public discourse is being driven by the mainstream Press, who are famously useless when it comes to writing about drugs. For example the Daily Mail sought to tenuously link hippy crack with the actual crack trade on so-called ‘county lines’. The ‘hippy crack' phrase is part of the media’s love affair with made up names for drugs, such as mephedrone (‘meow meow’) and MDPH (‘monkey dust’) designed to be tutted at during the breakfasts and lunch breaks of tediously conservative Englanders.
“I never heard it [the phrase ‘hippy crack’] until the 2000s,” said Mike Jay, a laughing gas historian and author of The Atmosphere Of Heaven. “It emerged as a tabloid cliche. I suspect it was picked up by some red top hack around then.”
VICE News asked its current users whether they ever adopted the term: “Never, it doesn’t really make any sense at all it being called that,” said Asha, 25. “I’ve never heard anyone actually call it hippy crack except the tabloids, it’s a cringe name,” says Ryan, 25.
As with all tabloid drug frenzies, tragedy billows the flames. In 2015 the media and politicians widely covered the death of 18 year old Ally Calvert as being caused by his use of laughing gas at a party in south east London. The rumour prompted then Met Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe to call call for the drug to be made illegal. But days later Calvert’s family said his death was not caused by the drug and was instead caused by an underlying heart condition. A post-mortem proved inconclusive.
However no drug is without its risks. Aaron Dunford’s tragic death a month before Calvert’s in June 2015 highlighted some of the risks that MP Rosie Duffield raised in the parliament debate – vitamin B12 deficiency which can eventually cause nerve damage and chronic pain – which in Dunford’s case, led to him being unable to walk down the stairs.
There has been plenty of research to confirm the drug’s negative effects on persistent users, and a 2020 study concludes that “while infrequent, episodic users are not at risk, a minority of heavy users are at dose-dependent risk of developing serious neurological consequences.” Nevertheless, Global Drug Survey founder Adam Winstock told VICE News that “for the vast majority who use four or five times a year, inhaling three or four balloons is remarkably safe - as long as you’re not near a road or can fall over and hurt yourself.
“Our research shows that the risk of nerve damage seen in a minority of users requires credible information to help people limit their use, raise awareness of early symptoms (persistent numbness and tingling in feet, mouth, tongue. fingers) and seek help.”
Whatever the legislative future for laughing gas, 241 years of British use suggests that the distinctive whooshing sound of an inflating balloon will continue to be heard at parties, festivals, raves and on Premiership footballers’ holidays – the bored citizens of this hedonistic isle, still clamouring for a fleeting escape to heaven.