Nitrous oxide branded 'hippie crack' as revellers get hooked
THE growing use of laughing gas as a recreational drug among middle-class party goers has claimed its first fatality in Britain.
Daniel Watts, a 23-year-old company director, was found dead at his home next to a large cylinder of nitrous oxide – a drug popular among students and young professionals.
An inquest was told last month he had asphyxiated himself by excessive inhalation of the drug, which is known as “hippie crack” for its psychological addictiveness and for the euphoria it induces.
The law on the sale and use of the gas appears to be unclear. A spokeswoman for the Association of Chief Police Officers said it was not an illegal drug although its sale is controlled by legislation on medicines.
However, according to the Medicine and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, it is illegal to sell nitrous oxide to people who intend to inhale it as a recreational drug.
The gas is used in making whipped cream and anyone over 18 can buy it if they say that they want it for culinary purposes. Possessing and inhaling it is entirely legal.
A host of internet sites sell it and nightclubs throughout Britain openly supply it to revellers. But research indicates a range of physical effects on habitual users, such as degeneration of the spinal column.
Donald Singer, professor of clinical pharmacology at Warwick University, called for warnings on containers that nitrous oxide may cause death, severe injury and long-term disability. “There needs to be an ethical debate around what you do beyond that . . . whether you say ‘people will get it anyway because of its food use’ or whether somehow you say ‘you can only use it in licensed premises’,” he said.
Medical-grade nitrous oxide is a constituent of the gas-and-air mixture used for pain relief in childbirth.
Christopher Ball, the Birmingham deputy coroner who conducted the inquest into Watts’s death, recorded a narrative verdict, stating that there was no evidence he intentionally took his own life.
Watts, who helped to run a promotions company in the West Midlands, had placed a bag over his head to increase the intensity of the fumes he was inhaling. The gas, which can cause the user to lose consciousness, prevented him from breathing oxygen and he died.
The use of laughing gas has taken the club scene by storm and it is now being offered to guests at dinner parties. The London nightclub Turnmills provides a “laughing room” on some nights, selling balloons containing a single hit of gas at about £2 each.
A spokesman for the club said it would continue to provide nitrous oxide to revellers, adding: “Like other club premises, we accept its responsible use.”
A wealth of companies offer nitrous oxide on the internet. One, Cream Supplies, insisted it would not sell to anyone suspected of using it for inhalation. However, under the heading “cash sales” its site posts the mobile numbers of several dealers who are not bound by the company’s terms and conditions.
Some of these openly offered to sell the gas and inhalation paraphernalia, such as dispensing machines and balloons.
One, who called himself “Alby” and covered the London area, told a reporter: “I deliver 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you call me and you pay me to come out to wherever you want me to come out, I come out. Basically on a box of 400 [hits], we charge £100 . . . we charge £20 delivery and, if it’s really unsocial hours we put it up to £30.”
Tom, a former vendor, said: “Because the high is really short, people just want it again and again and you see people overdoing it.”
Singer said: “People think it’s safe to take it by filling balloons with it and then inhaling the balloon. Sometimes they then also spin round and become dizzy and euphoric at the same time. Clearly the danger is you are out of control.
“The other risk is the longer term problem for people who do it repeatedly. There are reports of long-term damage to brain and bone marrow.”