The two youngsters inhale deeply from inflated pink balloons before looking at each other and laughing, while fall slowly to the ground…where they lie briefly, giggling. Then they rise again and head back to their friends in Victoria Park in London’s trendy East End…apparently no worse from their substance abuse. As night falls, the park empties of people, revealing dozens of the small gas cartridges and brightly coloured spent balloons. Street vendors use the cartridges to fill the balloons and sell these to clubbers.
London’s latest high is legal, and relatively inexpensive - at around 3.00 pounds (5.00 dollars) a pop - although the authorities have attempted to clamp down by using street-trading regulations. Nitrous Oxide finds legitimate use as an anaesthetic in hospitals and
dental surgeries and as a propellant in canisters for whipping cream. However, the British authorities are increasingly concerned over its ’recreational’ use among partygoers – and the ‘high’ is spreading outside London. According to Home Office data, 470,000 people aged between 16 and 59 inhaled laughing gas last year - up by 100,000 on the previous year.
The sale of Nitrous Oxide for recreational purposes and to minors is banned, but the authorities acknowledge that policing the ban is difficult.
”It doesn’t taste of anything,” says Andrew, 25, who has just completed a maths degree. “You get a balloon and breathe in and out until it’s deflated. Then you feel a bit dizzy and start to laugh a lot,” he says, expressing complete confidence that the high will not damage his health.
”It lasts around 30 seconds, and then you’re back to normal - or perhaps in a better mood.”
The authorities and medical experts are more critical. Britain’s Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, while acknowledging through its website that Nitrous Oxide is one of the ‘least risky’ drugs, adds, ”However, people have died from oxygen starvation when using unsafe methods to try to breathe large amounts of Nitrous Oxide for extended periods of time.” Further, “there will not be any warning symptoms until the user suddenly becomes unconscious.” Brain damage follows, and death can occur within minutes. In addition, persistent use inactivates Vitamin B12 reserves, resulting in possible nerve and brain damage, the independent organisation says.
The government has swung into action, with the Home Office launching a campaign against ‘legal highs’ in mid-August.
”Some of these substances are proven to be more dangerous than illegal drugs and it is vital that young people are informed about the risks associated with their use,” says Crime Prevention Minister Norman Baker. The authorities are currently conducting a review of how to approach what the government terms ‘new psychoactive substances’. But for the time being city street cleaners are sweeping up hundreds, if not thousands, of the small metal cartridges every day, while the police are still largely powerless to act.