Is the Use of Nitrous Oxide on the Rise?

By May Wilkerson 06/11/15

Nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, has moved up to seventh place on the list of the world's most popular drugs.

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A new major drugs survey reveals what drugs are being huffed, snorted, injected and swallowed across the world.

Unsurprisingly, marijuana is the most popular recreational drug in the world, followed by MDMA, according to the UK’s annual Global Drugs Survey. More surprisingly, however, is how the survey revealed the rising use of nitrous oxide, otherwise known as laughing gas, which now ranks as the seventh most popular drug.

The findings were based on the drug-taking habits of 100,000 people from 50 countries. In addition to gathering information, the survey informs drug users about their substance use in a way that is "meaningful, relevant and useful,” and aims to reduce the harms associated with drug use.

A surprisingly high 7% of participants said they had used nitrous oxide in the previous year, more than had used poppers or ketamine. In the UK, the rate was much higher at 23.7%, second only to the Netherlands.

The drug is typically inhaled after being pumped into a balloon with a metal canister, causing a “short yet very intense dissociative experience.” Before it was a popular club drug, nitrous oxide was legal and used as a medical anesthetic. The survey found it can be dangerous when used heavily and may cause nerve damage.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean it should be banned. "The majority of people who use it don't use it very often, and only around 3% of heavy users say they have experienced negative health effects,” said Dr Adam Winstock, founder of the Global Drug Survey. "What would be better would be more education on the effects and dangers of the drug, not blunt regulation."

Despite the rise of laughing gas, marijuana is far in the lead, with 55% of survey takers reporting its use it in the previous year. At a distant second, 23% had used MDMA. In third place were traditional psychedelics like magic mushrooms and LSD at 8.5%, while 5% surveyed had taken poppers, which are also legal in the UK and many parts of the world.

However, the UK government is cracking down on these so-called “legal highs.” The proposed Psychoactive Substance Bill, currently up for debate, would ban "any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect.”

The bill is meant to crackdown on legal mind-altering substances that exploit loopholes in drug laws, and are often unregulated and potentially hazardous. However, some opponents of the bill say this would have to apply to alcohol, nicotine and caffeine as well.

Dr. Winstock argues that the solution is not to ban these substances, but to regulate them and ensure they are properly labeled.

"What I'd like to see those labels saying would be exactly what the packets contain, how many doses there are in them, and how much a user should be taking,” he said. “That would reduce harm more than a blanket ban."

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.