Laughing gas: a drug taken quite seriously in Canada?
In the United Kingdom, the government is currently trying to legislate to prohibit the possession of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, which has become the second most used drug by 16-24 year olds.
In the United Kingdom, the government is currently trying to legislate to prohibit the possession of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, which has become the second most consumed drug by 16-24 year olds. There, the substance, which makes you laugh and dizzy, has caused around fifty deaths since 2010.
In Denmark and France, its sale is prohibited to minors.
In Canada, it is available over-the-counter in stores, in small capsules, and large canisters abound on the internet. Influencers show themselves inhaling it and consumers and doctors have seen its rating climb lately in the country. But the effects of nitrous oxide do not make you laugh for long.
The appointment was fixed in a rave, in the heart of Montreal, with Paméla Binette, of the Psychosocial Intervention Research Group (GRIP). An evening where the doors remain open until dawn, with platinum DJs.
Alongside the dancers, the coordinator of intervention services in the festive environment is ready. At his table, balloons, like for a children's party, and explanatory brochures on drugs.
These balloons, she gives them to those who wish to learn or consume, during the evening, nitrous oxide, also called nitrous. GRIP began distributing it three years ago, noting that more and more partygoers were tempted by this gas, which causes euphoria, a feeling of intoxication.
During this evening, no one consumes, under our eyes, but everyone knows the prototype. One of the revelers says he discovered the drug in Asia. You have your head in the sky. You take one or two for fun. […] This drug is really nonsense, he comments.
Paméla Binette says she sees consumers of all ages, from teenagers who take advantage of the over-the-counter product, to festival veterans. What we advise people is to be careful.
British police officers carry confiscated laughing gas canisters from revelers at the Notting Hill Carnival in west London in August 2022.
Warning, because laughing gas, under its innocuous looks, can quickly make people disillusioned. Often, to inhale it, consumers divert the use of nitrous oxide capsules used commercially to make whipped cream. They transfer the gas into a balloon and breathe it into it. Others buy large canisters, sold on the internet and attach the balloon to its mouthpiece.
The first risk is burns from the cold, explains Paméla Binette, because the gas comes out at a very low temperature. Then, as the cartridges are very concentrated, repeated inhalations can deprive consumers of oxygen.
“You can suffocate. When you consume it, you will inhale a significant amount, hold your breath, and not get oxygen in between. […] There are risks for the vital organs, the heart, the liver. We will advise people not to take balloons in a row. »
— Paméla Binette, from the Psychosocial Intervention Research Group
Finally, in the longer term, and with repeated doses, other effects may occur: loss of consciousness, partial paralysis and damage to the nervous system.
For Jorge Flores-Aranda, doctor of clinical sciences and holder of the TRADIS Canada Research Chair (trajectories, diversity, substances) at the University of Quebec in Montreal, the risks are anything but negligible.
There may be consequences of very repeated use over time, neurological consequences, on the nervous system and on mental health. There are cases of psychosis or other problems induced by prolonged consumption.
The consumers we met all discovered the substance abroad and have decided to keep this habit ever since. Alexandra is 28 years old, she started using it in 2018 at a festival on the other side of the Atlantic. Since then, she hasn't stopped. She recounts this discovery, unpacking the equipment she uses to take it.
La material d Alexandra to inhale laughing gas.
In England, I noticed that a lot of people had that, it was something that was very popular, there were canisters everywhere. […] I felt dizzy, absent, the noises are louder, the feeling on the hands too.
She says she sees more and more consumers, since her return to country, in festivals, even if she considers that the phenomenon is less popular here than in Europe.
In one evening, Alexandra says she can inhale about fifteen balloons. When you take one – capsule – you will make one and then another and another. It’s like wedging twelve cans of beer in the space of three minutes. Stun looks like this. […] If you do 20 online, in 10 minutes, you can have a bad headache.
The effect of the drug dissipates in less than a minute, which encourages you to take it often to quickly regain it. At a festival, Alexandra once saw people selling laughing gas in bags containing around 100 capsules. She wants to be a pedagogue, when she sees young people discovering the substance. They say not to go too many times in a row. I have already seen someone lose control, fall in the face […].
For Alexandra, the risk seems remote, and the laughing gas always makes her laugh. But in France, the substance has become a serious public health problem.
In hospitals, neurology departments are admitting more young patients who have inhaled high doses. A study by researchers in Strasbourg showed that five patients were admitted to a hospital between April 2020 and February 2021 with nerve problems following laughing gas consumption.
In the Netherlands, where the substance has been banned since January, nitrous oxide has played a role in 1,800 accidents over the past three years, according to road safety body TeamAlert. The capsules are so numerous on the roads that they are considered a danger for cyclists.
In England, doctors speak of a real epidemic and the government tries to make it illegal his possession. The daily newspaper The Guardian evokes nitrous oxide dealers, who scour festivals, credit card machines in hand, selling hundreds of capsules a day.
In the United States, the State of New York has passed a law to better regulate its sale. And California, among others, prohibits its sale for recreational purposes.
Cartridges that contain laughing gas litters the pavement after many visitors to the UK departed in the summer of 2020.
In a 2021 Global Drug Survey, based on 22 countries, including Canada, nearly a tenth of 32,000 respondents said they had used it in the past year.
En 2019, the Vancouver Coastal Health issued the alert in a press release, where one of its doctors said to see patients suffering from psychosis induced by this drug. He added that people became addicted to it and that its non-medical use could be extremely dangerous.
Health Canada, after several emails, declined to answer our questions. They wanted to know if the consumption of this substance was closely monitored by the agency. The BC and Ontario Ministries of Health have not come back to us.
In Quebec, the Ministry of Health estimates that there is no increase in its use. For this, it is based on data from the Center antipoison du Québec, which received less than five calls in connection with this gas last year.
But for the National Institute Public Health of Quebec (INSPQ), the extent of the phenomenon is probably underestimated, because for this substance to be detected, in the blood or in the urine, the attending physician must request a specific screening, which is not common in Quebec, according to the institute.
Jorge-Flores Aranda agrees. Indeed, when people present themselves in an emergency, we will not investigate the consumption of the substance, and it is not everyone who presents to the hospital following the consumption of nitrous oxide. […] This means that we have less information, fewer figures.
Magali Boudon, the director general of GRIP. (File photo)
For Magali Boudon, director general of GRIP, trying to ban the sale of nitrous oxide, as in the Netherlands, would not be a good idea. Consumer education must take precedence.
Legislate to prohibit… There have already been years of prohibition and it has not proven its effectiveness. That there is consideration and awareness that there may be a public health problem is very good, but just banning has never been a solution.
Recently, Alexandra has found that stores are adapting. Obviously, they understood that young people do not buy these capsules only because of a passion for whipped cream. One of the stores she frequents has taken nitrous oxide off the shelves for a while. It was then necessary to ask directly at the cash desk to get some.
I already asked a cashier: "Do you have any idea why I'm buying this?" She said "no, it's for the kitchen?" I don't feel that people are educated enough on the matter.
The capsules have since returned to the shelves of his store. For her, if the sale in free access continues, it is necessary, in any case, that the stores sensitize more the young people who buy it.
There is education to be done, notify these shops. If someone younger buys 50 boxes… Possibly that's why.