It is a mild anaesthetic, a rocket fuel and a propellant in aerosols. Nitrous oxide, the multi-purpose chemical also known as laughing gas, now has another use: it has taken off as the fashionable - and apparently legal - recreational drug of choice in clubs and dance venues.
Laughing gas, the legal drug sweeping clubland that is making regulators frownBy Terry Kirby, Chief Reporter
Club-goers are paying £2.50 for a nitrous oxide-filled balloon that delivers a relatively risk-free, two-minute hit of euphoria, a giggling fit, distorted sound and dizziness. It can also be a mild aphrodisiac.
But sellers and users face a clampdown. Although its recreational use is not illegal, those selling it have been warned they face prosecution under the Medicines Act by the Medical and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. Promising to investigate after the issue was drawn to its attention by The Independent, a spokesman for the Agency said: "Sale of nitrous oxide for medicinal use is strictly regulated and anyone selling the drug for recreational use, whether or not they have a license, faces prosecution.''
Nitrous oxide, otherwise known as Nos or N20, after its chemical formula, suddenly gained in popularity last year during festivals such as Glastonbury and the Notting Hill Carnival, where queues formed at tents to buy balloons filled from gas canisters; now it is being sold at clubs. "It seems the perfect party experience," the clubbing magazine Mixmag said. One user said: "Overall verdict: really good, lots of fun, very pure but expensive and over way too quickly." The last complaint is said to be common; some people say the gas has no effect.
There are potentially serious side-effects. Over-use can lead to nausea, paranoia and hallucinations, and inhaling direct from a dispenser can cause internal burning and lung collapse, or could even be fatal for those with heart conditions.
Nick Stevenson, the news editor of Mixmag, said: "People are setting up their stalls at clubs and party nights at one-off venues. It's just the novelty factor, really, rather like the girl in a cowgirl outfit going around a club selling tequila shots."
One of the organisations selling the gas at clubs and parties likely to come under scrutiny by the regulatory agency is Boss of Nos. It also dresses its staff in cowboy and cowgirl costumes and offers itself for hire to promoters and private functions as "something exciting, different and very professional".
Its website also sells gas dispensers, chargers and balloons; a 50-shot Starter Party Kit is £33.95. This year it is said to be planning to market itself for the first time in Ibiza, the club capital of Europe. It could not be contacted for comment yesterday.
Nitrous oxid, discovered in the 18th century, came into common use by dentists, usually mixed with oxygen, to dull the pain of treatment. The "gas and air" mix is now more frequently used in hospitals to relieve the pain of childbirth and in emergency medicine.
The recreational aspect of the gas was highlighted by the late Hunter S Thompson in his tale of drug consumptionFear and Loathing in Las Vegas; and in the David Lynch film Blue Velvet, the nitrous oxide-addicted villain, played by Dennis Hopper, carries a tank with him. It was also used as a disabling weapon by the Joker, played by Jack Nicholson, in the first Batman film.
A gas of many colours
By Tom Harper
Nitrous oxide was discovered in 1772 by Joseph Priestley. Humphry Davy, inventor of the miner's lamp, documented it as a recreational drug after testing it on the poet Coleridge.
In 1882, the American philosopher William James praised its ability to provide "ultimate truth" to a user, in a powerful spiritual and mystical experience. But, sadly, the after-effects of nitrous oxide proved similar to other recreational drugs: the memory of the experience did not linger.
Nitrous oxide has more oxygen than atmospheric air, so it helps an engine burn more fuel, boosting its power. It is also used to enhance the performance of the internal combustion engine and to propel rockets and force whipped cream out of a dispenser.
It is also an emergency anaesthetic and an analgesic, most often used in childbirth, with oxygenunder the tradename Entonox. It was used extensively for a time by dentists.
The gas is in the earth's atmosphere, naturally emitted from soil and oceans. It is a also a powerful greenhouse gas.