What is nitrous oxide?
Nitrous oxide has a long history of recreational as well as legitimate medical use. In the early 19th century, the upper classes frequently attended events where the room would be pumped full of N₂O gas while the audience was watching a comedy show. These ‘laughing gas parties’ were seen to be a more civilised alternative to the drinking pub culture of the poor.
In the late 20th century the recreational use of nitrous oxide became more widespread, becoming especially popular among UK teenagers who could acquire the canisters more easily than alcohol or other drugs. Balloons have since gained particular notoriety among festival-goers who frequently ingest other substances alongside nitrous oxide, using the effect of the balloons to ‘top up’ their high. Their popularity is aided by their low price point – approximately £10 for a box of 24 single-use canisters.
Nitrous oxide itself, when used responsibly, is a relatively safe drug. In almost two decades only 56 deaths have been registered as a result of nitrous oxide misuse in the UK.
André Gomes, who works for the harm reduction charity Release, says: ‘The overwhelming majority of people use nitrous oxide in safe ways. Despite the media-fueled moral panic around “hippie crack” – this gas has nothing to do with either.’
Harm reduction in the Muslim community
However, as with any psychoactive substance, recreational use doesn’t come without its drawbacks. And there is a demographic that seems to be at particular risk due to its cultural norms, a lack of effective resources and targetted education – young Muslim boys.
Dr Mohammed Qasim, the author of Young, Muslim and Criminal: Experiences, Identities and Pathways into Crime, noticed this pattern during his research into the Muslim prison population and drug gangs.
‘There appears to be an increase in numbers of young Pakistani Muslims who are using balloons. It [N₂O] doesn’t have the same kind of taboo as other drugs within the community, many don’t even consider it a drug,’ says Dr Qasim.
A 2021 qualitative study of 13 Moroccan-Dutch young people also showed an aparent correlation between belief (Islam) and risks associated with N₂O harms due to levels of taboo and strict parenting, particularly among young Muslim men.
There are many possible explanations for this phenomenon. Firstly – the taboo around alcohol in Muslim communities.
‘If you go to the pub, you’re not considered a ‘good’ Muslim. The reason why many people in this community do balloons is because if they were white, and if they weren’t Muslim, they probably would have gone to the pub and had a drink with their friends. But you can’t do that in this community’, Dr Qasim explains.
Nitrous oxide has virtually no distinctive smell and its effects only last between 30 seconds and 2 minutes, making it an intense, but very short-lived high. It’s also one that is easier to conceal from strict parents and continue to do more throughout the day without getting noticed.
The disparities in the British Pakistani community in access to mental health support are also well-documented. Untreated depression and anxiety can often lead people to self-medicate and self-soothe with illicit or dangerous substances, especially if they have barriers to accessing medical support. Discussions of mental health problems are also less normalised within the Muslim community, leading to further feelings of isolation.
Harms of nitrous oxide use
The primary harm lies not in the effects of the gas on the central nervous system (although a vitamin B12 deficiency can develop in heavy users), but in the mode of its administration. The increasing use of larger canisters (making it harder to keep track of how much you’ve used) and using balloons in cars are two factors that can heavily contribute to nitrous oxide harms.
What can policymakers do about this?
‘The core institutions in the community have a large role to play – such as mosques and community centres. There needs to be an open, transparent conversation around the damage that this gas can do,’ Dr Qasim explains.
He also stresses the importance of brochures and leaflets being available in Urdu and other languages, as well as proactively involving mosque leaders in targeted policy and outreach programmes.
As with any effective harm reduction approach, there needs to be a focus on a systematic education campaign that reaches all at-risk demographics, instead of advocating for abstinence. Sticking to smaller canisters, avoiding open fire when using the gas and learning to be conscious of your own and others use and when it becomes problematic are all important messages that need to be put out there.
Contrary to Priti Patel’s wishes, we can’t simply ban substances out of existence – nitrous oxide included. The only outcome of a blanket ban will be more criminal records, which have a long lasting impact on all members of society. And with Muslims already making up 17% of the prison population, further incarceration is surely not the answer.
Mr Gomes concludes: ‘Nitrous oxide is the ultimate failure of drug prohibition here in the UK because you have a drug that has very legitimate non-medical uses, that people are going to find a way of taking regardless of its legality. They are using it in a relatively safe way, but they’re also getting no information and understanding what is problematic and how they should be seeking help if they require it.
‘Saying the safest option is abstinence is a logical fallacy. By the same logic, the safest way of driving a car is also by not driving at all. But then how are you going to get anywhere?’