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Laughing gas 'legal high' FAQs

WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Sheena Meredith
bag of mephedrone

17th August 2015 -- From today, the so-called legal high laughing gas is banned in the London borough of Lambeth, the first local authority to impose restrictions under new council powers.

What do we know about laughing gas, or nitrous oxide, and what are the risks?

Read our FAQs.

What is laughing gas?

Nitrous oxide is used to numb pain during medical procedures such as dental work and as pain relief during labour, but has become popular as a 'party drug'. It is often inhaled from balloons in clubs and at music festivals.

Because the gas can make a person feel relaxed, calm or euphoric, it was nicknamed laughing gas.

The drug information website Frank says the gas is also known as whippits, hippie crack or chargers.

What are the risks of laughing gas?

Used by trained professionals for medical use, nitrous oxide is safe. However, when used as a recreational drug the risks include oxygen deprivation, loss of blood pressure, fainting and heart attacks.

The gas slows down brain and body responses. A person using the gas may feel dizzy, have trouble thinking and may giggle and laugh a lot. Sounds around the person may seem distorted and they may hallucinate. The gas may cause a headache shortly after it is inhaled.

The risks are higher if the gas is inhaled in a small space, or if a lot of gas is inhaled quickly.

Several deaths have been linked to laughing gas use, including the death of a teenager last month at a party in Abbey Wood in London.

Prolonged use of laughing gas can cause anaemia, affect bone marrow and cause nerve damage. Experts from the Local Government Association say the risks become higher if the gas is combined with alcohol or other drugs.

What's the legal situation with laughing gas?

Aside from regulated medical use, nitrous oxide can be bought legally for food use, such as whipping cream and in packaging to help preserve food. It also has some use in engines.

Possession of laughing gas is not illegal, but the supply of the gas for inhalation as a recreational drug is. The medicines regulator MHRA says nitrous oxide for inhalation can only be legally supplied by a registered pharmacist.

What's being done about laughing gas?

Local authorities have been issuing warnings about the dangers of using laughing gas to try to counter the impression given by some websites and video clip sharing services that laughing gas is harmless.

Lambeth has used a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) to essentially ban the use and supply of the legal highs in public areas across the borough. Anybody caught breaching the new order could face a maximum fine of £1,000.

Councillor Jane Edbrooke, Lambeth’s cabinet member for neighbourhoods, said in a statement announcing the ban: “Legal highs are simply not safe."

In May, the Government set out detailed proposals for a blanket ban on legal highs.

The Psychoactive Substances Bill aims to target those who profit from the trade in new psychoactive substances (NPS). Those convicted of the offence could be sent to prison for up to 7 years.

Reviewed on August 17, 2015

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