Funny Business

young men inhaling laughing gas from balloons
A group of young men inhale laughing gas from balloons. Image: Maciej Dakowicz/Flickr
young men inhaling laughing gas from balloons
A group of young men inhale laughing gas from balloons. Image: Maciej Dakowicz/Flickr

Laughing gas has become more than a drug, it’s now a commodity that businesses are built upon. And despite pressure from local government and the police, business is booming. Jason Roberts investigates.

For as long as humans have known about nitrous oxide, they’ve used it as a recreational drug. Discovered in the late 18th century by Sir Joseph Priestley, the chemist Humphrey Davy attempted to commercialise it a few years later. Using a machine specifically developed by his friends Thomas Beddoes and James Watt, Davy piped the gas into airtight silk bags and held extravagant parties for the British upper classes, who needed a break from spitting on the poor and fucking their siblings. Needless to say, these parties proved to be enormously popular. Davy had popularised nitrous oxide to the point that it was no longer called nitrous oxide amongst its aficionados; like any good drug it had a load of different names. And although terms like “factitious airs” and “phlogisticated nitrous air” were both used at the time, history thankfully decided on a simpler name: laughing gas.

cartoon about laughing gas
Satirical 19th Century cartoon depicting Humphrey Davy delivering a Royal Society lecture on laughing gas.

Today, nitrous oxide is found all over the place. It’s mainly used in hospitals as an anaesthetic, but you’ll also find it in mechanical parts for cars and rockets. And, curiously enough, you’ll also find it in food. Specifically, in whipped cream. Placed inside cans of whipped cream because of how soluble it is in fatty compounds, when the solution is exposed to air, the gas expands and creates that beautiful foamy goodness. Because of this, catering wholesalers will now sell tiny metal cylinders (known as chargers) to anyone willing to buy them by the thousand. Which happens to be an attractive proposition to two groups of people in particular: Michelin-starred chefs, and laughing gas dealers.

Once upon a time, laughing gas was only popular amongst Britain’s stranger subcultures, but now it’s coming back into fashion. Part of the reason is the ascent of house music into the mainstream, as the drug has a strong association with the scene. There’s also the fact that it’s relatively low-risk, providing a quick, cheap, easy high in contrast to the some of the more hardcore Class As available. But perhaps most importantly, laughing gas is more accessible now than ever before. This is because there’s now an entire industry built around delivering laughing gas right to people’s doorstep, 24/7. And it’s all entirely legal.

Well, sort of. The legality of laughing gas isn’t totally black and white. Possessing it, and more importantly consuming it, are both okay in the eyes of the law. But the debate is mostly focused around how laughing gas is sold. Because nitrous oxide is used in hospitals as an anaesthetic, it falls under the Human Medicines Regulations Act, meaning dealers can’t sell it with any medical connotations attached. However, if it’s sold as a foodstuff, it’s fine. This is why laughing gas businesses can operate relatively openly under the guise of ‘catering suppliers’, because they don’t sell you nitrous oxide canisters, they sell you whipped cream chargers. You might think it’s an issue of semantics, and you’d be right, but legality often depends on such little things. Ultimately, the police have very few legal grounds to prosecute laughing gas traders, and everyone knows it.

laughing gas canisters
Whipped cream chargers containing nitrous oxide. Image: TechAnalyst

“They can’t do anything,” says T*, a Cardiff dealer who’s agreed to meet me and discuss the industry. It’s no exaggeration to say that there is a laughing gas industry, a fact that’s very clear within minutes of meeting T. In the doorway of his house, giant cardboard boxes are stacked on top of one another in the hallway, all full with smaller boxes each containing 24 chargers of pure nitrous oxide. We start talking, and T is quick to establish the legality of his business, telling me, “If someone calls me and asks for balloons, or repeatedly asks for laughing gas, I can’t sell it to them,” although he’s fully aware that the overwhelming majority of his customers aren’t calling him at 4am because they’ve got a cake that needs decorating.

We carry on, but we are soon interrupted by T’s phone. It’s a customer. T says he’ll be there in half an hour, and invites me along for the drive. Driving through Cathays, he details plans for getting his company logo adorned on the side of his car, and starts complaining about his web designers. “[They] made me the logo, but they turned out to be massive dickheads,” he sighs, as we pull up outside an apartment block in the city centre. T is on time, but there’s no sign of the customer. “This guy’s such a longhead,” he mutters, before putting his car into neutral and turning the engine off. The whole thing is totally bizarre. A dealer turning up on time is rare, but sticking around for a late customer is totally unheard of. Eventually, a man approaches the car, gives T a tenner for a box of 24, and walks back inside. No tension, no counting money, no checking of weights, nothing. The whole thing seems less like a drug deal than it does a pizza delivery. Appropriate perhaps, for a catering supplier.

Every aspect of T’s operation adheres to basic business principles, and it shows. Drug dealers don’t have websites. Drug dealers don’t advertise. Drug dealers don’t turn up early, and they definitely don’t wait around for customers who take forever to show up. Laughing gas is well and truly being commodified, though it’s not exactly easy to get a business started. After telling me that it cost around £2000 to get everything off the ground, T explains, “It’s really difficult to buy cream chargers from wholesalers. Literally they’re impossible to find. The only way I got hold of mine was through a number I found, and I had to ring them and ask if I could buy some for wholesale, and they weren’t very helpful about it. They were like, “visit our affiliate website” and I had to ring them and ask them for their supplier’s number. It was quite difficult really.”

T went on to explain that just like every other tradable commodity, the source, and more importantly the brand, matters. “It’s all from the UK, either Liss or Mr. Whip. Or Erotica Cream, which is the same thing but the box has pictures of naked girls on. There’s also Best Whip, but that’s the inferior stuff. Mr Whip’s just the thing that people hit, it’s more of a younger person’s brand. Liss is more for caterers. Mr. Whip is owned by the same people as Liss, and it’s made by the same people as Liss. It’s just packaged differently, it’s exactly the same on the inside.”

Needless to say, where there’s business, there’s competition. And when you’re dealing in a high stakes product like drugs, you’re likely to run the risk of violence. But there’s not even a hint of violence between laughing gas traders, instead it appears sellers are often willing to work with one another. T says, “In Cardiff, there’s Anytime Cream and there’s someone called Got Cream. Got Cream don’t really have any online presence, and Anytime Cream have got a bit of a bad reputation. Most of my customers are old Anytime Cream customers. The Anytime Cream guys are sound though, when I run out, I’ll sometimes order it off them and they’ll give me a discount.”

Upon closer inspection, the laughing gas industry starts to look more and more like any other. Brands matter. Service matters. Advertising matters. The former subculture staple is now just another cog in the capitalist machine. The majority of the businesses themselves are even registered for tax, because it’s difficult for them to secure a wholesaler if they’re not. All this raises the question: if laughing gas is mostly legitimate, why do so many people want to get rid of it?

police fighting clubber in cardiff
Police restrain a man on St. Mary’s Street in Cardiff. Image: Maciej Dakowicz/Google

In recent years, police and local government have attempted to crack down on the industry (South Wales Police declined to provide any comment for this article). Last year in August, the Local Government Association (LGA) issued a health warning about the dangers associated with the gas. The chairwoman of the LGA’s community wellbeing board, Councillor Katie Hall said at the time, “It is deeply disturbing that this drug, which can be highly dangerous, is still widely viewed as safe. It is imperative that users understand just how harmful it can be. This gas can kill – and much more needs to be done to get this message across.” The Home Office also released a guidance report in 2013 that advised local councils to use legislation that makes trading in certain streets or areas illegal, which would target laughing gas sellers who trade on market stalls. This has proved to be a brief deterrent in some areas of the UK where market stalls were once popular. But instead of pushing laughing gas off the streets entirely, it’s just pushed it online, and inadvertently right onto people’s doorsteps.

Much of the battle for local councillors and police forces is convincing people that laughing gas is dangerous. And there are cases where laughing gas, when used excessively, has killed people. But in comparison to other drugs, the likelihood of death is incredibly low. Official figures blamed laughing gas for 17 deaths between 2006 and 2012, averaging out at fewer than three deaths per year. In comparison, about three people every year die from being struck by lightning in the UK (according to the Tornado and Storm Research Organisation). It’s important to maintain a sense of perspective when reporting on laughing gas, which is where many feel that local government, the police, and the sensationalist media, are losing their credibility.

It’s important to note this, because laughing gas can be dangerous. The author Ben Goldacre, who has risen to prominence by denouncing poor science reporting, noted in a 2007 blog post, “…to be effective and persuade people to change their behaviour in public health policy, it is generally considered that your message must be credible, and perceived by the recipient as applicable to their circumstances.” Which all sounds very reasonable. The problem is, Goldacre says, that laughing gas users are ignoring public health warnings because of the way the drug is being misrepresented in the media and by government bodies. Instead of presenting a credible message, they’re doing the exact opposite.

colourful balloons littered on street
Balloons used for laughing gas after a night out. Image: Tal Bright/Flickr

It really comes down to finding out how harmful laughing gas actually is. You’re already aware that it’s unlikely to kill you, but there are other effects that are often misreported. The rush that nitrous oxide gives you is often attributed to the ‘fact’ that it starves the brain of oxygen, but this is untrue. The truth is that the full effects of nitrous oxide on the body aren’t fully understood by scientists yet, but the majority of evidence points to the way that the drug interacts with the NDMA receptor in the brain in a similar way to ketamine, which is why they’re both used as anaesthetics. If nitrous oxide truly starved the brain of oxygen, why would it be administered to women in labour?

The main risk of the drug is that long-term use can lead to a vitamin B12 deficiency. Which doesn’t sound majorly important, until you consider that without vitamin B12, you’ll struggle to make new cells. Which you need to, er… survive. Vitamin B12 deficiency is largely treatable, but it’s still a fairly unpleasant thing to have to deal with. The thing is, if local authorities presented vitamin B12 deficiency as the worst thing that can happen to a regular laughing gas user, the impact would be minimal because frankly, people don’t give a shit about stuff like that. This is how we’ve ended up trapped in the familiar cycle of moral panic and government misinformation that so often surrounds any drug-related issue.

The debates surrounding the laughing gas industry are representative of the UK’s problem with drugs, a problem that stems from a failing drug policy and the way drugs and their various addicts are represented in the media. We need evidence, education and reasoned discussion, but we’re given doubt merchants, misinformation and hysteria. All of which puts the laughing gas industry in a strange position. Right now it exists in legal limbo, and along with a large market to satisfy, it also has many opponents who would like nothing more than to see it properly criminalized. But instead of criminalising it, what if the government were to regulate it and tax it like any other commodity, and operate the scheme as a trial for future legalisation of other drugs? It’s been established that while laughing gas is not without it’s dangers, you’ll struggle to find a drug in such high demand and with a relatively low risk factor, which makes it perfect for such an experiment. It’s unlikely that the current government (or any future one, for that matter) would go in for this though, which is a shame. Until then, we’ll just have to grin and bear it.


*Real name withheld.