Netherlands set to ban recreational use of laughing gas

Laughing gas, or nitrous oxide, canisters on the street
Canisters of nitrous oxide litter the street in Utrecht. Aug. 13, 2017Sebastiaan ter BurgWikimedia CommonsCC-BY

Nitrous oxide will become a controlled substance under the Opium Act in the Netherlands to curb the growing use of the chemical compound more commonly known as laughing gas. The substance will be added to the "List II" classification under the law, alongside drugs like hashish, diazepam, lorazepam and butabarbital, the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport said in a statement.

“We can no longer accept the health risks to young people in particular," said the ministry's number two, State Secretary Paul Blokhuis. The decision follows an investigation by the the ministry's team for monitoring new drugs, CAM. "The assessment by the CAM shows that the recreational use of laughing gas can be extremely harmful and can lead to serious health damage even with limited use. A 'balloon' is really not as innocent as it seems, that is becoming clear now," Blokhuis said referring to a the rubber balloons often used to ingest the drug.

There were 48 reported Dutch cases of health complaints related to laughing gas in 2017. That figure rose slightly to 54 cases in 2018. But in the first six months of 2019, that figure was already at 67, with more "vulnerable, young and inexperienced users" partaking in the substance, the ministry said.

The increasing use of laughing gas was developing into a troubling issue in Rotterdam already in 2015. Utrecht introduced a plan to ban nitrous oxide use in five large areas as well as during festivals and public events, and Rotterdam enacted similar rulers. Amsterdam was also investigating how it could limit distribution and use of the drug.

The use of nitrous oxide by drivers is also skyrocketing, Dutch police said back in August. By July, there were over 950 traffic incidents involving the drug. Just last week, a 23-year-old motorist using laughing gas led police on a wild chase through Ede while he filmed himself with a smartphone, inhaling baloons filled with the drug during the entire ride.

Overuse of nitrous oxide can lead to a deficiency of vitamin B12 and neurological problems, while the ice cold cannisters can even cause severe skin burns. A 2017 case study published in the Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings showed that a 22-year-old who had inhaled the gas roughly 30 times per day over an unspecified period of time developed fine motor skills problems, an imbalanced gait, and numbness of the hands and feet. "Unfortunately, the accessibility and low cost of whipped cream chargers have made nitrous oxide inhalation, or 'whippets,' increasingly popular among teenagers and adults alike," journal authors Dr. Lindsey Stockton, Dr. Cameron Simonsen, and Dr. Susan Seago wrote.

Over a year ago, Dutch online retailer banned the sale of laughing gas cylinders on its site.

The gas cannisters will still be available for use in whipped cream dispensers used by the hospitality industry. Other permissible uses will be discussed with the hospitality sector, wholesalers, retailers, and gas producers.

"The recreational use of nitrous oxide has developed into a drug problem and the Opium Act is the right route to tackle this. But we do not want to disproportionately disadvantage providers and users of laughing gas, as it is intended," Blokhuis said.

"After all, it just has to remain to be able to order a dash of whipped cream with your apple pie."