Everything you need to know about party drug laughing gas - and if it's dangerous

Debates about the potential harm of nos have raged for several years (Photo: Shutterstock)Debates about the potential harm of nos have raged for several years (Photo: Shutterstock)
Debates about the potential harm of nos have raged for several years (Photo: Shutterstock)

Labour MP Rosie Duffield has called for tighter regulations on the sale of laughing gas - or 'nos' - after an increase in its use.

'Nos' is a shortening of nitrous oxide, sometimes referred to as laughing gas or 'hippy crack.' It's a colourless gas that is usually found in metal canisters.

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The substance is sometimes used in medical settings - such as dentistry - to sedate patients. Restaurants also use the canisters in cooking, while in motor racing, nos can be used to increase engine power.

How is it used as a drug?

In recent years, however, nos has become a common party drug among young people, and is estimated to be one of the most popular among 16 to 24 year olds.

Nitrous oxide is inhaled, usually through a balloon. The canister is opened and the gas transferred to a balloon, which it is then inhaled from.

Inhaling the gas directly from the canister can be very dangerous, as the gas is under high pressure and can cause a spasm of the throat muscle, stopping a person breathing.

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The effects - which are usually short-lived - are feelings of relaxation, euphoria and calmness, laughter, and sometimes hallucinations or sound distortions.

Some of the negative effects can be dizziness, headaches and paranoia.

Is nos legal?

While it is possible to purchase nos, it is illegal for someone to sell or give away canisters for recreational purposes, under the Psychoactive Substances Act.

However, the law around this is not steadfast. In 2017, a judge ruled that nos did not fall under the Psychoactive Substances Act, after two people were arrested carrying canisters of the gas en route to Glastonbury Festival.

Is it dangerous?

The risks associated with inhaling nos are hotly debated.

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Drug advisory service FRANK states that the risks of nos include:

  • Falling unconscious and/or suffocating from a lack of oxygen. People have reportedly died this way
  • Dizziness, which could make users act dangerously or carelessly
  • B12 deficiency, leading to a form of anaemia or numbness in fingers and toes
  • Regular use can lead to white blood cells not forming properly
  • Fainting or having an accident after consuming too much

However, in January, Professor David Nutt - former government drug tzar - said that laughing gas is “less toxic and less addictive” than alcohol. He described it as “a logical alternative to alcohol for those people who don’t want to be impaired."

In 2009, Professor Nutt was forced to resign from his post after his claim that LSD and ecstasy were less dangerous than alcohol.

Between 1993 and 2017, nitrous oxide has been mentioned on just 35 death certificates in England and Wales.

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According to evidence from the National Programme on Substance Misuse Deaths, based in London, most of these deaths involved abnormal uses of nitrous oxide, including asphyxiation after putting bags over heads or inhaling from large canisters.

It has been suggested, however, that the increasing popularity of nos as a party drug is having a harmful effect on the environment, with birds mistaking discarded balloons for food and swallowing them.

Litter-pickers and local residents have also complained about the propensity of nitrous oxide canisters discarded by revellers.