It's hard to remember a time before the hiss and pop of NOS dispensers soundtracked every British social gathering. Before groups of rough men in North Face jackets offering three balloons for a fiver made up 25 percent of all attendees at any given dance music festival. One thing's for sure: it was a simpler time, back when drugs were drugs; "gas" was what Americans called petrol; and NOS was what made Vin Diesel's car go faster.
Now, laughing gas is the second most popular drug in Britain (behind weed) – probably due to the fact it's available outside most nightclubs and inside basically any house party with a conscientious host. Daily Mail scare stories about Coronation Street stars "indulging in "FASHIONABLE new drug HIPPY CRACK" presumably don't hurt either, with readers realising it's relatively harmless stuff and deciding to try it out for themselves.
The cottage industry that's sprung up around NOS is unique in the way it falls between legitimate business and old fashioned, meet-me-in-that-side-street-in-half-an-hour drug dealing. The mark-ups are huge – depending on the bulk of your order, you can flip individual canisters for nearly 1,000 percent profit – so it's no wonder scores of budding entrepreneurs are getting involved; type the name of any major city into Facebook, followed by the word "gas", "NOS", "whip" or "cream", and you'll find a host of small businesses delivering laughing gas around the clock.
These businesses use social media to advertise their product, making tongue in cheek allusions to being innocent catering supply companies selling chargers for whipped cream dispensers, circumventing the legal grey area NOS falls into: it's not illegal to possess or inhale it, but it is illegal to sell it to anyone under 18 if you think they're going to inhale it.
Type in "Sheffield" and one of those kicker words, and you'll likely end up on a page advertised as the city's largest and cheapest supplier of cream chargers. The business is run by my friend Mark, who I've known since school, back when he used to hawk out-of-date Mars bars on the field at lunchtime. Now, he delivers colourless gas to the students, caners and assorted flotsam of Sheffield, who know him universally as "The Gasman".
Up on the roof of Mark's apartment building, he's telling me that he's "not just in this for the love of NOS". A business management graduate, he comes off like a fairly typical young entrepreneur; an Apprentice contestant you wouldn't actually mind going for a pint with.
"I tend to do a sponsored Facebook post most afternoons," he says, his eyes darting between the two iPhones and the iPad laid out in front of him. "I used to spend hours trying to write funny posts, but I realised that just posting a picture of some canisters with the phone number does the job just as well. People want gas; they just need to be reminded."
His system obviously works: Mark's gas-phone barely stops buzzing throughout my entire time with him, and at one point he leans over to show me the 786 unread messages, 514 missed calls and 224 voicemails he's accumulated in the past week or so.
Half an hour into the delivery run, the incessant rattle and clinking of hundreds of NOS canisters is beginning to grate on me. Mark's obviously used to it, hurtling around Sheffield at a speed that doesn't seem legal as he chats about the status of his business.
"Officially, I'm selling whipped cream chargers," he says. "They're not for human consumption – that's what it says on my website. Can I guarantee that nobody who buys from me 'misuses' them? Unfortunately not, but I don't sell it for that purpose."
Under the current provisions of the government's proposed Psychoactive Substances Act – which aims to ban all "legal highs" – Mark's business, at best, would remain in a legal very-grey area, placed under heavy scrutiny, or, at worst, land him up to seven years in prison. That said, the bill was supposed to be passed into law on the 6th of April, but has now been delayed while the government works out what it's doing, after a number of setbacks, so the legislation could still change.
Either way, Mark's decided to get out while the going's good, as he doesn't see much of a future for the venture post-ban.
"It's a good time to get out, really," he says. "I've done alright for myself, but business is in decline anyway; more people are wise to the fact that you can order NOS online for half the price. The ban will put people like me off, but I don't see how they can stop fucking Amazon."
It's 9:47PM and I'm sitting among the many boxes of NOS in the back of Mark's car to allow his customers space in the front seat. We've just dropped 14 boxes of canisters off to two girls outside Sheffield's main student halls. They came out in dressing gowns, and upon seeing me and my camera thrust the money through the open car window before scurrying back inside, ignoring my – in hindsight, probably quite creepy – request for a "quick photo".
Our next customer, the host of a nearby house party, stops and chats with us for a while. He addresses Mark as "Gasman" three times over the course of our brief conversation. It doesn't sound like he's being ironic.
Though most of the deliveries tonight are to students, Mark isn't without his more mature customers. As we navigate the many one-way streets and dodgy junctions of Sheffield city centre, Mark catches up on his voicemails. A middle-aged woman's voice comes over the loudspeaker. She identifies herself as "Jelly Bean", explaining that she's lost her iPhone, so when Mark's on his way he should give her a call on the landline.
"She and her husband usually order three boxes [72 cream chargers] maybe every other Saturday night," Mark explains. "Apparently they drop the kids round at her sister's, come home, open a bottle of wine and balloon the night away."
As the night progresses, I notice the various ways people go about their business with Mark. Compared to other transactions, where the customer-vendor relationship is much more established, buying laughing gas is relatively new territory for most people. Some treat Mark like a friendly drug dealer: non-threatening, but someone to be respected. They invite him into their parties and overuse the word "mate". Others simply hand over the cash and take the gas without exchanging any more than basic pleasantries – the kind of inane shit you mutter to a pizza guy or a bus driver.
Our last stop of the night takes us way, way out into Sheffield's suburbs, to a punter who's offered to pay double the normal price to cover delivery. We're met at the end of the drive by Dan, who is shirtless and has pupils the size of a watch face. He invites me into his back garden to share in his purchase and pose for a picture.
There's an awkward moment as he stands there topless, shivering in the cold March night and fumbling with the dispenser, neither of us talking. I look through the conservatory and into Dan's living room; nobody's there. We finish our balloons and, without an explanation as to why he's at home, possibly alone and shirtless at 3AM on a Saturday morning, Dan goes back inside.
NOS, when used safely, is pretty harmless stuff. There were 17 deaths associated with laughing gas between 2006 and 2012, but in almost every case the deaths were caused by asphyxiation due to the method people had used to inhale the gas (plastic bags), not because of the gas itself.
Professor David Nutt, neuropsychopharmacologist and the former UK drugs czar, argues NOS is "exceptionally safe" given the number of people who use it. "I mean, you can kill yourself, obviously," he told the BBC. "If you breathe nothing but nitrous for 10 minutes, you will die, but I don't think there's any evidence that nitrous kills people if you use it recreationally."
How exactly the government is going to legislate against a substance that's arguably less harmful than a pint of lager is yet to be decided. Why exactly they want to ban it is something we'll probably never know.
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