What is Nitrous Oxide?
Nitrous Oxide, or ‘Laughing Gas’, is extremely popular amongst young people in the UK due to its cheap price and easy availability. The cannisters can be purchased over the internet for as little as 99p and can often be found in corner shops. With several legal uses for the substance, it is relatively easy to get hold of. Nitrous Oxide is used as an anaesthetic in dentistry and is also used for whipped cream in the catering industry. When used for medical reasons, such as in dentistry, it is always mixed with a high percentage of Oxygen, making it much safer to inhale. This is not the case when used recreationally, when it is typically inhaled through a balloon. People do this for the short-lasting feelings of euphoria, but with the lower Oxygen content it is much more dangerous to take.
What are the risks?
While Nitrous Oxide may seem like a harmless substance, there are several risks associated with using it recreationally. As a depressant drug, Nitrous Oxide causes the body to slow down. Risks include feelings of nausea, vomiting, and headaches. More seriously, it can cause asphyxiation (oxygen deprivation) and may even lead to death. These risks can be heightened when taken alongside alcohol, which is also a depressant drug. When Nitrous Oxide and alcohol are taken together, the risk of both respiratory depression and loss of consciousness are increased.
As a dangerous substance, Nitrous Oxide should never be taken recreationally. However, there are a few ways to make recreational use safer if you choose to take the risk. These include not inhaling directly from the canister, not taking while in an enclosed space, and making sure to consume a small meal beforehand to avoid nausea and vomiting. However, the best way to stay safe is to not take it in the first place as it affects everyone differently and you can never be sure of the affects you will feel.
Should it be criminalised?
Despite the risks associated with the substance, it is currently not illegal to take Nitrous Oxide. There is an ongoing debate over whether criminalising recreational use of Nitrous Oxide will help keep people safe, or whether it could actually make the situation worse. Some argue that this would not reduce use of the drug. There is concern that the criminalisation of Nitrous Oxide may result in young people moving onto more dangerous substances. Whilst it is not currently illegal to take Nitrous Oxide, it is illegal for Nitrous Oxide to be distributed for recreational purposes. This law was introduced under the Psychoactive Substance Act 2016. Those who are found to be doing so can face a fine and a prison sentence of up to seven years.
Both sides of the debate are outlined here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-53349215
Where to get help
If you are worried about yourself or someone you know concerning substance abuse there are a number of organisations offering help and advice: