Nitrous oxide epidemic among young adults ‘more dangerous than cocaine,’ neurologist warns

BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom — A neurologist says nitrous oxide is “more dangerous than cocaine” and some teens and young adults may be using over 150 canisters in a single day! The substance is better known as laughing gas, but also referred to “hippie crack” or “nos.” It’s one of the most commonly-used drugs among 16 to 24-year-olds in the United Kingdom alone, government officials say.

Dr. David Nicholl, consultant neurologist and clinical lead at City Hospital in Birmingham, says he now sees more patients struggling with side-effects of nos than cocaine abuse. He adds the volume of this gas that youngsters are consuming has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic.

Nitrous oxide, commonly sold in single-use silver canisters, fills up balloons which users then inhale to create a temporary feeling of relaxation and euphoria. It’s a popular recreational “drug” of choice for concertgoers, particularly fans of Grateful Dead-like jam bands like Phish, hence the term “hippie crack.” People can often be found in the parking lots outside shows with nitrous tanks selling balloons to concertgoers, who then suck the gas from the balloon for a quick high.

However, heavy regular use can lead to a range of side-effects which include dizziness, weakness in the legs, and impaired memory.

“I’ve been a neurologist for 21 years and have seen a definite change in how it’s being used, since the pandemic,” Dr. Nicholl says, according to a statement from SWNS.

“Compared to before, now the volumes of nitrous oxide being consumed can be quite terrifying – up to 150 cylinders per day. It’s perceived as safe – and terms like ‘laughing gas’ are especially unhelpful because it makes it sound trivial. But the stuff bought on the street is pure nitrous oxide and not safe for human consumption,” the neurologist warns.

“It is not the same substance used in hospitals, and it is toxic.”

laughing gas nos
“Empty Laughing Gas Canisters” by promo-cymru is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Where are kids getting laughing gas?

Dr. Nicholl supports the recent decision by the United Kingdom’s drug advisory panel to not ban the drug following talks. However, he says a different approach is necessary to tackle the issue — targeting the supply at the source.

Nicholl explains that nitrous oxide is easily accessible at shopping centers like Walmart and on social media – where sellers target teens and young adults. He adds that street sellers are getting more and more savvy about their sales – to the point that it resembles an “organized crime group.”

“You’ve got to, in one way, take your hat off for the guys selling,” Dr. Nicholl says, according to SWNS. “They’re marketing on social media, and they know exactly what they’re doing. They even have QR codes printed on the side to go buy more – that’s how easy it is to access. No wonder it’s so common.”

Similarly, local convenience stores make buying laughing gas “as easy to buy as a loaf of bread.”

“I go to the chemist and I can’t buy 200 paracetamol tablets,” Dr. Nicholl continues. “So, why are we having corner shops selling 600g cylinders?”

People doing nitrous oxide balloons at a music festival
Youths suck on balloons at a music festival a common sign of people using nitrous oxide. (Image provided by South West News Service)

A big problem, Dr. Nicholl explains, is that nos is legal to sell – especially if it is going to be used for whipping cream, such as in cafes and restaurants. When it becomes available for the wrong purposes, however, it can have disastrous consequences – and the neurologist sees this all too often.

“There is existing legislation to attack the supply chain but people can say ‘I’m getting it for whipping cream’,” he says. “Although – I’ve yet to find an actual chef who uses it for that purpose.”

Nicholl considers nitrous oxide “a bigger health risk than cocaine” at the moment due to how prevalent it is. “I have a patient every few years because of cocaine, but one every week due to nitrous oxide,” Dr. Nicholl notes.

Many don’t know nitrous oxide can be harmful

A recent study by the research agency OnePoll finds 50 percent of people are unaware that nos can cause serious health problems such as nerve damage or (in extreme cases) paralysis. Despite this, roughly 40 percent of users say they suffered side-effects such as anemia, cognitive impairment, and chronic headaches.

Dr. Nicholl believes the best approach to curbing nitrous oxide use is through education and targeting the supply chain. “A ban is the wrong approach,” he explains. “In what way are we solving the problem by criminalizing a 16-year-old with a couple of whip-its and a balloon on the street?”

“All we would do is drive it underground. Restricted distribution is what’s recommended – what we need to do is target the supply chain, but you do still need a caveat for some kind of legitimate use,” Dr. Nicholl continues. “And we should be focusing on education so people are more aware of how dangerous it is when sold and used recreationally.”

The doctor believes the solution is for police to use existing legislation to target those responsible. Recently, a 46-year-old Bristol man received a 12-month suspended jail term for selling nitrous oxide.

With cases like that in the minority, however, Dr. Nicholl feels change is urgently needed.

“It mystifies me that there haven’t been more arrests when you see sellers everywhere. It comes back to the loophole that it’s for baking,” Nicholl concludes. But when you’re handed a balloon on your way out the door, it’s not for baking, is it?”

Ever since the Psychoactive Substances Act came into effect in May of 2016 it has been illegal to supply or import nitrous oxide for human consumption in the United Kingdom.

South West News Service writer Amy Reast contributed to this report.

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