Recreational use of nitrous oxide
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The gas is sometimes called Whippets, Laughing Gas, the Epiphany Drug, or Hippy Crack. In Australia, nitrous oxide bulbs are known as nangs.
Nitrous oxide is a dissociative inhalant that can cause analgesia, depersonalisation, derealisation, dizziness, euphoria, and some sound distortion (flanging). In some cases, it may cause slight hallucinations and have a mild aphrodisiac effect.
Inhalation of nitrous oxide for recreational use, with the purpose of causing euphoria and/or slight hallucinations, began as a phenomenon for the British upper class in 1799, known as "laughing gas parties".
During the 19th century, William James and many contemporaries found that inhalation of nitrous oxide resulted in a powerful spiritual and mystical experience for the user. James claimed to experience the fusing of dichotomies into a unity and a revelation of ultimate truth during the inhalation of nitrous oxide. Memory of this experience, however, quickly faded and any attempt to communicate was difficult at best. James described a man who, when under the influence of the gas, claimed to know the secret of the universe.
Until at least 1863, a low availability of equipment to produce the gas, combined with a low usage of the gas for medical purposes, meant it was a relatively rare phenomenon that mainly happened among students at medical universities. When equipment became more widely available for dentistry and hospitals, most countries also restricted the legal access to buy pure nitrous oxide gas cylinders to those sectors. Even so, its use in parties continued, with gas provided by medical professionals or restaurant workers, and by other legal or illegal sources.
A report from Consumers Union report from 1972 (based upon reports of its use in Maryland 1971, Vancouver 1972, and a survey made by Dr. Edward J. Lynn of its non-medical use in Michigan 1970) found that use of the gas for recreational purposes was then prevalent in the US and Canada.
It was not uncommon [in the interviews] to hear from individuals who had been to parties where a professional (doctor, nurse, scientist, inhalation therapist, researcher) had provided nitrous oxide. There also were those who work in restaurants who used the N
2O stored in tanks for the preparation of whip cream. Reports were received from people who used the gas contained in aerosol cans both of food and non-food products. At a recent rock festival nitrous oxide was widely sold for 25 cents a balloon. Contact was made with a "mystical-religious" group that used the gas to accelerate arriving at their transcendental-meditative state of choice. Although a few, more sophisticated users employed nitrous oxide-oxygen mixes with elaborate equipment, most users used balloons or plastic bags. They either held a breath of N
2O or rebreathed the gas. There were no adverse effects reported in the more than one hundred individuals surveyed.
The drug currently enjoys moderate popularity in some countries. In the United Kingdom, as of 2014, nitrous oxide was estimated to be used by almost half a million young people at nightspots, festivals and parties.
Methods of inhalation
Recreational users generally use 8 gram containers of nitrous oxide "whippets", which they use to fill balloons or whipped cream dispensers. The gas is then inhaled from the balloon or dispenser. This is necessary because nitrous oxide is very cold when it decompresses on exit from a canister; inhalation directly from a tank is dangerous and can cause frostbite of the larynx. Some users attach gas masks or other inhalation devices to large tanks of the gas.
Since nitrous oxide can cause dizziness, dissociation, and temporary loss of motor control, it is unsafe to inhale while standing up. Inhalation directly from a tank poses serious health risks, as it can cause frostbite since the gas is very cold when released. For those reasons, most recreational users will discharge the gas into a balloon or whipped cream dispenser before inhaling.
Nitrous oxide can be habit-forming, mainly because of its short-lived effect (generally from 1–5 minutes in recreational doses) and ease of access. Death can result if it is inhaled in such a way that not enough oxygen is breathed in. While the pure gas is not toxic, long-term use has been associated with vitamin B12 deficiency and its symptoms: anemia due to reduced hemopoiesis, neuropathy, tinnitus, and numbness in extremities. Pregnant women should not use nitrous oxide recreationally, because chronic use is also teratogenic and foetotoxic.
Inhaling industrial-grade nitrous oxide is also dangerous, as it contains many impurities and is not intended for use on humans. Food grade nitrous oxide is also not meant to be inhaled; the bulbs commonly have industrial lubricants from their manufacturing process on and in them. When the bulb is punctured, these solvents can aerosol, introducing unknown particles into the gas. These lubricants commonly leave an oily residue on the bulb "cracker" or inside the whipped cream dispenser.  However, letting the gas settle in a whip cream container and slowly dispensing or using a "cracker" dispensed into a balloon mitigates this issue to some extent.
Under United States federal law, possession of nitrous oxide is legal and is not subject to DEA purview. It is, however, regulated by the Food and Drug Administration under the Food Drug and Cosmetics Act. Prosecution is possible under its "misbranding" clauses, prohibiting the sale or distribution of nitrous oxide for the purpose of human consumption (the recreational drug use market). Given the necessity of proving intent of either buyer or seller in this case, though, such prosecutions are rare.
Many states have laws regulating the possession, sale, and distribution of nitrous oxide; but these are normally limited to either banning distribution to minors, or to setting an upper limit for the amount of nitrous oxide that may be sold without special license, rather than banning possession or distribution completely. In most jurisdictions, like at the federal level, sale or distribution for the purpose of human consumption is illegal. In California, for instance, inhalation of nitrous oxide "for the purpose of causing euphoria, or for the purpose of changing in any manner one’s mental processes," is a criminal offense under its criminal code (Cal. Pen. Code, Sec. 381b). In many other countries, this substance is legal. Small N2O cartridges, used to make whipped cream, can be legally purchased by anyone.
In all US jurisdictions, however, distribution, possession, and inhalation are legal when done under the supervision and direction of licensed medical professional such as a physician or dentist.
Supply of nitrous oxide for recreational purposes is technically illegal under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016.
However, this is not to say that nitrous oxide is not readily available, because although nitrous oxide is illegal to be sold for human consumption, 'food grade' nitrous oxide canisters, made for the purpose of prolonging the shelf life of whipped cream and other products are completely legal, and anyone can buy these without a permit.
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