THE gas in small canisters used to whip cream is increasingly being ingested as a dangerous party drug.
Nitrous oxide, more commonly known as laughing gas, is a substance which is used for many legal purposes: commonly as a sedative in medical procedures and is also increasingly being used to treat people who are withdrawing from alcohol dependence.
However, due to it being readily available online and in shops at a relatively cheap price point, it is increasingly being purchased by young people seeking a high.
Colloquially known as 'nangs', the gas is discharged from a cartridge, either directly into the mouth or into an object such as a balloon.
After ingesting it, the user will feel euphoria and sometimes they laugh uncontrollably. Usually the effect only lasts a few minutes. But while it may seem harmless to many, it can be very dangerous and can have a lasting effect on the user.
Selling nitrous oxide
Nitrous oxide falls under the 'deleterious and volatile substances' section within the Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Act 1981. While it is legal to buy and sell the cartridges for purposes such as baking, it is an offence - under section 58 of the act - to supply them if it is suspected that the purchaser is intending to consume it.
This ambiguity with the law has made it easy for those looking to exploit it for a quick buck, by offering the delivery of nangs to Victorians 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Often spreading the word with 'sponsored advertisements' on social media, the businesses deliver the 'party supplies' - including nitrous oxide cartridges, balloons and cream whippers - around the clock, either by post or with fast, direct to the door delivery.
One of these online suppliers spoke to The Courier on the condition of anonymity.
James, which isn't his real name, has been running his nangs delivery business for about a year. A friend owns a competitor business, and James thought it seemed like "an alright way to make some money".
The majority of his customers are aged in their mid to late 20s, though some are aged up to 50. Some are students, and James said the majority of his customers appear to work full time.
He said he has supplied commercial businesses including restaurants and cafes, while he has also supplied nangs for parties.
"We are busy enough to make a decent living but no one is getting rich," he said.
James maintained that he sells the products only to people who want to use them legally, though about 60 per cent of his sales are made at night.
South Australia has led the way in controlling the illegal sale of nitrous oxide by updating its regulations earlier this year, limiting their sale to business hours and imposing a range of new penalties.
While the laws differ from state to state, in Victoria anyone caught supplying the substance unlawfully faces up to two years in prison and fines in excess of $8000.
James said he checks ID as proof of age if unsure at the time of delivery, while he bans people who explicitly indicate they will misuse the products or if the quantities purchased could not "reasonably be used for baking".
"I have no reason to not take most people on their word that the products purchased will be used as intended," he said.
"It is inevitable, as with any product, that some people will use them other than intended. I cannot control that."
The Alcohol and Drug Foundation's knowledge manager, Melinda Lucas, said nangs were not a new trend and their use often spiked in the summer months, with large gatherings involving young people such as music festivals and Schoolies celebrations.
However, discarded nangs cartridges can also be found in gutters and even in the bush around Ballarat throughout the year.
"Trends vary from season to season or even generation to generation," Ms Lucas said.
Ms Lucas said the effect nitrous oxide immediately has on the user only lasts a few minutes, though it is different for each individual.
"The slight euphoria, sedation and laughter effect occurs because it is temporarily blocking oxygen to the brain," Ms Lucas said.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that when people use nangs, they don't use just one, but a number in succession. Each time, more oxygen is blocked from entering the brain.
She said evidence also suggested that users mix nitrous oxide with other substances - either depressants such as alcohol or stimulants such as MDMA or ecstasy - which exacerbates their effects and can present a raft of risks.
If mixed with alcohol - a depressant which slows down messages within the brain and body - the disorientation normally caused by the drug can be exacerbated, so the user is at increased risk of alcohol-related injury due to their reflexes being slowed down.
On the other hand, if mixed with a stimulant such as MDMA or ecstasy it can also be dangerous.
"There you've got messages in the brain going faster than normal because of a psychoactive substance, and then you cut the oxygen off, so you increase the potential harm associated with the MDMA or ecstasy because of the addition of an extra substance into the brain chemistry, that's already running a little bit faster than it normally would," she said.
Meanwhile, long-term effects of nitrous oxide ingestion can include memory loss, depression, nerve damage and psychosis. If a large amount of nitrous oxide is inhaled, it can be fatal.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare's most recent National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that over time, the use of inhalants has been gradually increasing.
Ms Lucas said it was hard to accurately pinpoint the trends around nitrous oxide misuse specifically as it is grouped into the inhalant category and no separate, concrete data exists.
While she said there is no safe level of drug use, especially for people with underlying conditions, there would always be people who would experiment or use drugs recreationally.
As such, there needs to be more education about risk, especially about poly drug use.
Ballarat Community Health runs a number of programs to support people around drug and alcohol use through a harm minimisation framework.
Manager of Alcohol and other Drug Services, Suzanne Powell, said the health service's support programs - which include education, counselling, withdrawal support and youth programs - had seen presentations of nitrous oxide use.
Historically the people who have presented to the health service have been young people who have used nitrous oxide in addition to other drugs.
Ms Powell said with a holistic approach, the health service worked to support people to either reduce or stop their substance use all together.
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A big part of this is providing education about how substances can impact on physical and mental health as well as what the short and long term consequences of continued use can be, so people can make informed decisions.
If they do opt to continue use, a conversation is had about how this can be done in a way that reduces risks.
While public health policy cannot be based on anecdotal evidence alone, Ms Lucas said more of it was needed to trigger strong, robust data collection to support any significant change to the way nitrous oxide is accessed in Victoria.
Reducing drug harm
Ballarat Acting Inspector Shaun Bingham said police were aware of several websites and online platforms that facilitated the supply and delivery of nitrous oxide across Victoria, though there was no police intelligence to indicate these services were facilitated from Ballarat.
In order to tackle the harm caused by drugs within the community, he said Victoria Police were committed to the four pillars of drug harm minimisation - prevention, treatment, harm reduction and reducing supply.
"While drugs have the capacity to cause harm to a person every time they are consumed, drugs also cause harm to the user's family and friends. This is why police work tirelessly to reduce the supply of drugs in Victoria," he said.
Retailers and other suppliers of nitrous oxide are required to do so in line with the Victorian Responsible Sale of Solvents code, which includes information for dealing with customers who may be using solvents or inhalants and about the right to refuse a sale.
Police encourage anyone with information on the supply of nitrous oxide for human consumption to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or submit an anonymous report online so police can investigate.
Help is available via:
Ballarat Community Health: 5338 4500
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