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September 26, 2012 6:43 PM   Subscribe

What's the story with recreational use of nitrous oxide?

My limited personal experience with nitrous oxide, i.e., one mildly pleasant dentist appointment 30+ years ago and a couple of barely memorable party-related episodes involving cans of whipped cream around the same time, always made me think it was nothing to write home about.

However, this summer I noticed that several music festival websites prominently mention "no nitrous" or "no glass, no nitrous". The latter, especially (i.e., mentioning it in the breath as meth) makes me think there is some danger that I'm not aware of. (Thanks to Breaking Bad, I assume that "glass" does not refer to glass containers.) BTW - I did NOT notice any posts warning against LSD, ecstasy, mushrooms, etc.

My daughter, who spent the summer at festivals, told me that people who try to sell meth at festivals are risking a beating from otherwise peaceful festival "hippies" (a term she uses with respect, btw, not a hint of irony or derision in her voice) - she says that this is not true for those who sell nitrous.

So, why the emphasis on "no nitrous" by festival promoters?

A couple of final comments:
  • I understand prolonged exposure can be risky, which is why my dentist doesn't use it.
  • Demi Moore's trip to the ER several months ago, which she denies was related to nitrous oxide use, generated a lot of press on the subject, but nothing that really answers this question. I KNOW that inhaling nitrous oxide is not GOOD for you, but neither is alcohol, pot, or Cherry Garcia.
posted by she's not there to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
You should read this long article from the Village Voice about the Nitrous Mafia.
posted by Perplexity at 6:44 PM on September 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think "no glass" actually does mean "no glass containers"---people get injured from broken bottles at music festivals all the time.

My guess is that nitrous is forbidden because whippets are metal cartridges that can injure people if tossed around. Also the whole "Nitrous Mafia" business.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:49 PM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I would hazard a guess that they mention it specifically because they want to discourage any drug use (particularly at under-21 shows), and people tend to consider nitrous a legal way to get a quick but pretty intense buzz.

As for the risks of it, seriously heavy nitrous abuse can cause some minor damage akin to peripheral neuropathy, but you literally need access to it by the tank-full. Even doing a few whippits a day, every day, won't add up to noticeable damage.
posted by pla at 7:00 PM on September 26, 2012


I think "no glass" actually does mean "no glass containers"---people get injured from broken bottles at music festivals all the time.

Yeah. It might be taken to imply glass pipes, but if I saw that I'd pretty much assume "no glass bottles because people will step on them and/or we want to sell alcohol".
posted by brennen at 7:00 PM on September 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Perplexity, thank you for the link to the article, which seems to be the answer to my question. It does make me wonder why festival hippies appear to be tolerate of those selling nitrous oxide. (Assuming that what my daughter has observed is actually true.)

"no glass" actually does mean "no glass containers"

Damn you Walter White. You've redefined "glass" for me. You've changed the definition of "season" to "8 weeks, 10 month hiatus, 7 weeks". Have you no limits?

I guess I'll have to wait until July 2013 to find out. And, FWIW, I'm beginning to hope that Hank nails your sorry ass.
posted by she's not there at 7:12 PM on September 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Many years ago the younger brother of a friend of mine somehow got an industrial (dentist) size bottle/canister of this stuff. He and a friend put masks on to have some fun. One of them eventually woke up, the other did not.

Another sad example of teenage stupidity and forever lost potential.
posted by CincyBlues at 7:22 PM on September 26, 2012


No glass is almost certainly a venue requirement and an insurance requirement as well as common sense
posted by fshgrl at 7:38 PM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


That village voice article is very sensational. It has a lot of swear words and sex talk.

Real life information from someone who isn't me:

Nitrous is not much of a party/festival drug in that if you have it standing up, you might fall down. The main problem at festivals is likely the liability/injury problem. You are basically anesthetizing yourself for 30 seconds. You could VERY easily crack your head, etc, and if that happens the drug will be present instead of something you potentially ingested before getting there. And there is the risk of death from asphyxiation if you do it with a bag over your head or do so much for so long that you replace all your oxygen with nitrous oxide. Festival execs have reason to be concerned about nitrous causing liability problems. This would be especially true of people who do it for the first time, and are for instance standing up when they take it.

Nitrous is best for places where you can sit in one spot, like a bed, tent, or sofa. It can be a nice partner drug because you can pass a cannister back and forth.

Nitrous is not exactly "nothing to write home about." It's quite intense. It's also a good potentiator of other drugs. People for instance enjoy LSD + Nitrous which very much intensifies the LSD. Some people consider this their favorite combination.

Nitrous is safe enough that there is basically zero chance of problems from a cannister or two. It would be a relatively safe drug if done in the home by someone interested in trying drug use. Also the trip is very short.

However, it is potentially long term addictive. It has some mild effect on the endogenous peripheral opioid system (the heroin-like stuff your own body produces) which makes it habit forming for some people. However it does not directly at your dopamine or endogenous opioid receptors so it is not as addictive as truly addictive drugs.

(Of course I am speaking about use in other countries where this is legal.)
posted by kellybird at 7:41 PM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


*does not act directly... typo
posted by kellybird at 7:43 PM on September 26, 2012


I would have thought it was was due to the rubbish factor?

Lots of festivals (in Aus at least) are in state forests or on private land, and having thousands of metal bullet-shaped spent bulbs littering the place at the end of the festival is not awesome. They're hard to spot in the grass when you're cleaning up. I've seen special bins provided just for nangs at some festival but there's always a subset of people who leave a trail of litter in their wake. It's a short-lived high and very moreish so people can get through boxes of the stuff over a weekend. At a large festival that makes for an awful lot of nangs lying around the place by the end.
posted by procrastinator_general at 10:36 PM on September 26, 2012


Hey, seriously, spoilers in an unrelated thread.
posted by cmoj at 11:41 PM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Friend from high school died in a hot tub courtesy of nitrous. Slept away.
posted by FauxScot at 3:42 AM on September 27, 2012


Thanks to all of you for the information. The posts regarding the deaths attributed to nitrous oxide have raised a couple of questions for me.

He and a friend put masks on to have some fun. One of them eventually woke up, the other did not.

Is "putting on a mask" typical? Also, I'm guessing that the actual cause of death was "oxygen deprivation", rather than an overdose of nitrous oxide, right?

Friend from high school died in a hot tub courtesy of nitrous. Slept away.

I'm thinking there must be more to this story, i.e., I haven't seen anything regarding nitrous oxide being sleep inducing. (Please correct me if I'm wrong.)


I don't mean to nitpick regarding the "actual cause of death" - I just want to know what I'm talking about when I talk with my kids about recreational drug use.

My condolences on the untimely loss of your friends.
posted by she's not there at 5:13 AM on September 27, 2012


Anecdata time!

In the first half of the 1990s I worked in Boston's Back Bay in a small company's shipping department. I dispatched two bike messengers & a car guy of my own, but I also got to know a local courier service very well.

They were just a block away, so one day they invited us to stop by that summer's Alley Races at their office. I went over after work (about 8PM) to find, indeed, an alley full of sweaty bike messengers from all over Boston. I was given a can of cheap beer and offered a bag. A "bag" turned out to be a full-size black trash bag that had been filled with nitrous from a big cylinder.

The sight of all these people standing around in the dusk dressed only in black, with enormous Courier Ware bags on their backs, holding what looked like enormous black balloons (confusingly without strings) made me laugh, even without any nitrous.

Also, the Alley Races were run from Berkeley Street to Arlington Street in the alley north of Boylston Street, so the racers shot through the toilet paper "finish line" and out into traffic at the corner of the Public Garden closest to the Berkeley T stop. This resulted in some honking of horns and startled pedestrians at the end of each race. The situation escalated to outright panic among "Cheers"-seeking tourists as the slightly drunk and squeaky-voiced couriers switched from Alley Races to Naked Alley Races later on in the evening. Good times, good times.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:34 AM on September 27, 2012


Nitrous was popular at my first college. I've seen it used in contexts that ranged from careful and unalarming to totally grim and scary.

Nitrous can put you into a state of blissed out delirium, quite without regard for what's going on around you (possibly because you're also seeing shimmery swirling things.) That's why dentists use it for extractions, etc.

"Putting on a mask" is not the typical scene at parties, especially festivals, as that implies access to a tank (hopefully of medical grade nitrous, and not something industrial) and proper equipment. Much more common is the use of (questionably) food grade whipped cream chargers and cannisters, or just metal "crackers" fitted to a balloon.

Using a tank is dangerous because you're messing around with surgical anesthesia....

using crackers and a cannister/cracker is dangerous for a few reasons: you tend to take in large doses in a single hit, which leads to an intense experience that lasts maybe 10-30 seconds, and tends to leave you wanting more (until it leaves you feeling slightly ill). Thus the "hippie crack" nickname.

Using a balloon you're also typically depriving yourself of oxygen by breathing in/out of the balloon. A cracker, or parts of a cannister will also get very cold with repeated uses--cold enough to damage fingertips and lips. Finally, depending on the source, there may be dangerous chemicals etc. in the cannisters.

When I lived in Portland, these were sold in only the sketchiest head shops, plus porn/sex shops. So there's that....
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:18 AM on September 27, 2012


Thanks for the story, Wenestvedt. Coincidentally, I'm kinda/sorta watching (it's on in the background) "Premium Rush" at this very moment. From what I've seen in the first 10 minutes, these couriers look too fit to be indulging in recreational drug use. (My, oh my, "Tommy" certainly has changed a lot since 3rd Rock - but, still cute as all-get-out.)

BTW - garbage bags!? According to the article in The Village Voice, the Nitrous Mafia dispenses nitrous oxide in much smaller amounts, i.e., by the balloon. I suppose the couriers have much greater lung capacity than the typical festival attendee.

Here's another work-related nitrous oxide story, though not nearly as entertaining as yours. When I was a bartender at Bennigan's (almost 30 years ago), the cans of whipped cream were kept in a locked box in the fridge to ensure that staff didn't drain them of the propellant.
posted by she's not there at 7:26 AM on September 27, 2012


I would have thought it was was due to the rubbish factor?

Working as a steward at a festival last year, we were told that nitrous (and glass) was banned because of the mess - you end of it with hundreds of those little canisters everywhere which are really hard to clear up, and often the sites are used outside of festival times to keep cows etc, so it's also dangerous for the animals.
posted by shiny shoes at 11:10 AM on September 27, 2012


Nitrous oxide is actually pretty easy to make. Heat ammonium nitrate to 200C, filter the gas coming off through steel wool, and voila.
posted by telstar at 11:31 AM on September 27, 2012


A quick google of the terms no nitrous and no glass brought me to a festival site for All Good Festival

The rules there state:
NO Glass bottles: Extreme danger w/ broken glass. Do not bring glass bottles as they are subject to confiscation. Plastic containers and cans for personal consumptions only.
and
** NO NITROUS - All Good Festival strictly prohibits any use of or sales of Nitrous Oxide. Nitrous and the criminal element that tends to sell Nitrous at this type of an event are a virus to our community. We ask you, the average fan, to think twice before supporting this virus that is eating away at our lovely community. The best way to chase these folks away from our scene is to cut off the demand. Please, for the sake of our festival community, DO NOT purchase or sell Nitrous Oxide.
posted by heatherly at 11:54 AM on September 27, 2012


Thank you for posting details from the All Good website, which support the info published a couple of years ago in The Village Voice.

I like the idea of appealing to festival attendees' desire to keep evil people out of their community and I hope it's effective. Too bad these folks (the "nitrous mafia") aren't the primary suppliers of heroin or similarly dangerous drugs, i.e., shunning them just removes one relatively benign substance from the market.

BTW, when my daughter returned from All Good, she mentioned that security was exceptionally (as in, unpleasantly and intrusively) tight. I will share this thread with her the next time we get together.
posted by she's not there at 10:36 PM on September 27, 2012


she's not there : Is "putting on a mask" typical? Also, I'm guessing that the actual cause of death was "oxygen deprivation", rather than an overdose of nitrous oxide, right?

No, and yes.

Although a kid who somehow managed to score a tank may not have known "the rules", basically "don't use a mask" counts as RULE NUMBER ONE when doing nitrous. When the dentist gives you nitrous, he has it carefully blended with air to make sure you get enough oxygen; he also has an alarm that goes off if you stop breathing, and he can personally discontinue its use if something goes wrong.

Now, rule number one has a much more practical rule number zero to keep in mind with any drug use - Plan your use so that, if you pass out, you will immediately stop getting more of the drug. The reason masks kill has nothing to do with dose or purity or even the seemingly obvious fact that you stop getting oxygen (the "cause of death", but not the actual problem here) - Masks kill simply because if you pass out, you keep getting more nitrous and no oxygen. Same idea holds for chugging hard liquor, you don't die because of the purity or the simple fact of chugging itself, but rather, because you keep getting more drug after you pass out.

By contrast, taking a hit off a balloon or a cracker or a whippit means that no matter what happens, you stop getting more drug, and start getting normal air, once you pass out. And FWIW, the real danger of crackers has nothing to do with dose or purity (one breath of nitrous equals one breath of nitrous, regardless of the source). It comes simply from inhaling cold and anhydrous gas (which won't kill you unless you have really bad asthma, but it can still hurt like hell). That said, taking a hit directly off a cracker could conceivably overinflate your lungs, which can kill you - Thus, stick with the "via balloon" route.


I don't mean to nitpick regarding the "actual cause of death" - I just want to know what I'm talking about when I talk with my kids about recreational drug use.

In truth, they can do a lot of worse crap than nitrous. It doesn't last long (so you couldn't, for example, go for a drive on it), it doesn't cause damage unless you do a LOT of it, and if you teach them anything, teach them rule zero. Because they will eventually try stupid shit, and rule zero might keep them alive when they do. :)


telstar : Nitrous oxide is actually pretty easy to make. Heat ammonium nitrate to 200C, filter the gas coming off through steel wool, and voila.

...And then discover what happens when someone without a well-regulated temperature source reaches 240C. For those reading this and tempted to try it, don't.
posted by pla at 7:52 AM on September 28, 2012


Friend from high school died in a hot tub courtesy of nitrous. Slept away.

I'm thinking there must be more to this story, i.e., I haven't seen anything regarding nitrous oxide being sleep inducing. (Please correct me if I'm wrong.)

I can't refute this. However, he owned a medical supply outfit that delivered gasses, and from what I was told, nitrous oxide and a hot tub factored prominently in his death. Alcohol and/or other drugs and factors may have been involved. For all I know, inflatable companions and rubber abrasions may have been a factor!

Personally, I've snoozed off from just the general relaxation of it at the dentist's office and had to be poked. That's one reason I never questioned what I heard about my friend's death. When he died, I was living far away and didn't bother to get more info. Hosing around in a tub with tanks of gas, no training, and the potential for things to go wrong seems unwise in the extreme. Guy was in his 30's at the time.... close to but not quite at the point where good judgment visits the male mind for the first time! (Note I said "visits" as it seldom stays.)

Not sure what I'd tell my kids, were that an issue.
posted by FauxScot at 6:14 PM on October 6, 2012


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