Nitrous Oxide

Nitrous oxide is a pain killing sedative that is often used to treat anxiety. If you’ve ever been to a dentist, you might be familiar with nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide is a colorless gas that has been used for various purposes throughout history, including pain relief and anesthesia.

Nitrous oxide is sometimes used as a form of treatment. It is typically administered through a mask that you wear over your nose, allowing you to breathe in the gas. When inhaled, nitrous oxide can produce feelings of euphoria and relaxation, hence the “laughing gas” nickname. It can help individuals manage withdrawal symptoms during the detoxification process. By providing a calming effect, it may alleviate some of the discomfort experienced during this critical phase of recovery.

Recreational Use of Nitrous Oxide

The recreational inhalation of nitrous oxide, aiming to induce euphoria and mild hallucinations, traces its origins back to the British upper class of 1799, famously partaking in “laughing gas parties.” This practice, illustrated in Thomas Rowlandson’s nineteenth-century aquatint, marks the early societal engagement with the substance for pleasure rather than medical or culinary purposes.

By the 19th century, the accessibility of nitrous oxide for various professional uses facilitated a surge in its recreational consumption worldwide. By 2014, in the UK alone, its use had become prevalent among nearly half a million young adults, frequenting nightspots, festivals and gatherings. The substance’s recreational popularity in the UK was notably documented in the 2017 Vice documentary “Inside The Laughing Gas Black Market.” This documentary shed light on the underground distribution networks, highlighting instances where the gas was illicitly obtained from medical facilities.

An issue of particular concern in London has been the environmental impact of discarded nitrous oxide canisters, which have become a common sight, sparking community complaints over litter. Despite the seemingly benign reputation of nitrous oxide as a “safe high” among users, there is a significant risk of neurological damage from excessive use. Unbeknownst to many recreational users, overindulgence can lead to severe, potentially irreversible neurological harm.

Legislative responses have evolved in light of these concerns. Initially regulated by the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 in the UK, which made the production, supply, import and export of nitrous oxide for recreational purposes illegal, the law was further tightened. On 8 November 2023, the UK government escalated its stance by classifying the possession of nitrous oxide as a Class C drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Similarly, in Australia, the recreational use of nitrous oxide emerged as a public health issue, prompting South Australia to enact legislation in 2020 to limit the sale of canisters, following a noticeable increase in neurotoxicity cases and emergency room visits.

While nitrous oxide can be beneficial in addiction treatment, it’s important to note that it must be used under professional supervision. Medical experts will carefully monitor the dosage and ensure it is administered safely. This helps to minimise any potential risks or misuse that may arise.

Nitrous oxide has a long history of use in medical settings however, its potential for abuse and recreational use has also been recognised. In certain contexts, such as at music festivals or parties, nitrous oxide can be misused as a recreational drug. This misuse can have adverse health effects and can be dangerous if used irresponsibly.

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