Sunday, August 09, 2015

No Laughing Matter?

Anyone who walks around the residential streets of Clayhall or Barkingside and is observant will see discarded small silver gas canisters. Mostly in alleys or behind those green street furniture boxes but often in plain view.

These canisters contained Nitrous Oxide (otherwise known as Laughing Gas) and are manufactured and sold for legitimate and lawful purposes in the catering trade – to produce whipped cream.

However, they are also used as a “Legal High” and known as “Hippy Crack”: Costing as little as £3 a hit, it's now inhaled openly on Britain's streets. But, according to the Daily Mail the young professionals getting high on laughing gas don't realize it is “potentially lethal”.

In an investigation a year ago, the Daily Mail found:
  • Nitrous oxide was to blame for deaths of 17 people between 2006 and 2012
  • Sellers parade London's trendiest streets selling balloons from canisters
  • Minute high has an intense feeling of euphoria likened to 'snort' of cocaine
  • Can have devastating consequences including blackouts and heart attacks
  • Doctors say they have no way of knowing how much gas puts users at risk
But it’s not just found in the trendy night clubs or venues like in Brick Lane, Gants Hill or South Woodford. It’s out here too, in the leafy quiet streets with Neighbourhood Watch signs on the lampposts. The reader reports of spotted canisters in the printed edition of the Ilford Recorder last week is just the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, according to the Daily Mail the phenomenon is becoming as widespread as glue-sniffing was in the Eighties.

So, why do young people do it? Are they just inquisitive, intelligent people with a perception that unlike hard drugs it has no harmful side-effects? Or have they been let down by parental guidance, the education system and drug awareness programmes?

The product is widely available on the internet, as well as on the street. But because selling nitrous oxide for recreational use - as ‘hippy crack’, in other words - is banned, suppliers pretend they are selling it for other purposes. They get round the law by marketing it as a whipping agent for desserts and whipped cream, in much the same way that the party drug mephedrone (‘meow meow’) used to be advertised as a plant fertiliser.

But not everybody is convinced by the government’s proposals in the psychoactive substances bill. Earlier this month there was a mass inhalation on Parliament Square in protest, organised by the “Psychedelic Society”. And they do seem to have a point: “If we are going to have legal tobacco and alcohol with all their side effects, why can’t we have legal highs?”

Returning to the first sentence of this post, I also see discarded cigarette butts and packets, empty beer cans and empty spirit bottles (usually ½ pints, Brandy and Vodka seem to be popular).

An epidemic or another knee jerk reaction? Discuss.

Note: If you are concerned by drug or alcohol use the Redbridge advice centre, R3, is here.

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