Nitrous oxide dens banned
By KEVIN TAYLOR and DEREK CHENG
The Government has ruled that selling or buying nitrous oxide to inhale is illegal, but promoters of the gas are already planning to sidestep the ban.
Associate Health Minister Jim Anderton said yesterday that following a legal review, authorities would now warn people that "nos" was illegal.
He said nitrous oxide was a prescription medicine and its unrestricted sale was illegal under the Medicines Act.
Christchurch bars selling nitrous oxide as a recreational drug have drawn criticism from school principals, local body politicians and residents.
On weekend nights in the city centre, young people can be seen doubled over on the footpath outside nos bars, sucking on $5 gas-filled balloons and giggling as they enjoy a dizzying high.
The substance gives people a cheap headrush lasting between 30 seconds and a minute.
Last year, Mr Anderton condemned nos delivery services in Christchurch, which he said allowed "very young people to dial up 'highs' as if they were dialling up a pizza".
Murray Muir, the general manager of Cosmic Corner, which sells nitrous oxide in boxes to take away, said nos bars were an increasing problem.
But bar-owners had been anticipating a legal crackdown and had prepared a defence, he said.
"There are three grades of nos: medical, food and automotive. So you need a prescription to sell the medical grade nos, but not the food grade.
"People can get nos from dairies for cream whippers and Soda Streams."
He welcomed the greater control over nos bars.
"But there's a lot of grey area here. There needs to be a test case."
This year, Christchurch police asked for legal advice on whether nos bars were breaking the law.
Mr Anderton said selling nos without a prescription was now an offence carrying a maximum penalty of six months' imprisonment or a $1000 fine.
It is also an offence to possess prescription medicines without reasonable excuse, with the penalty being three months in prison or a $500 fine.
Because it was new advice it would be unfair to start prosecutions immediately, he said.
Taken in combination with other drugs, nos has been implicated in the deaths of two young men in car crashes in Christchurch and Nelson.
Mr Anderton said nos could cause harm to lungs, freeze-burns to lips from inhaling directly from the nozzle of dispensers, anaesthesia, collapsing and choking on vomit while unconscious.