Such a Gas, Gas, Gas

by Alex Rhys-Taylor

22 July 2020
Originally published in our Old Blog.

It’s 6.00am on Tuesday morning in the car park of a redbrick housing estate in Tower Hamlets. An empty bay is strewn with over fifty small, metallic gas canisters along with three flaccid party balloons, an empty packet of Capri Sun and a crushed bottle of Lilt. Everything empty. Before they were emptied, each small cannister had contained 8 grams of highly pressurised nitrous oxide. Later that day, Rosie Duffield MP appeared in parliament calling for the re-banning of nitrous oxide. Tower Hamlets Mayor, John Biggs, live tweeted Duffield’s speech enthusiastically. 

Synthesisable since the late eighteenth century, the numbing sensations afforded by nitrous oxide – which start at the extremities and works its way inwards with each breathe – were first identified as for their utility in medicine and light surgery. It is considered benign enough to be used in the UK for the delicate tasks of childbirth and juvenile dentistry. In other countries, it is used more widely for a great many other types of intervention and light surgery.  From the outset, however, it was clear that the sequestration of pain was not the only affordance of N2O. Along with the numbing sensation, also comes a brief-yet-intense rush of giddy euphoria. For second, maybe half a second under gas, everything is a little absurd and wonderful at once. The more hedonic sensations are the reason nitrous oxide colloquially became known as ‘laughing gas’. It is also probably why having a good time is sometimes referred to as ‘having a gas’. These latter hedonic sensations, it should be added, are what appear occupy young Londoners whiling away long summer evenings on park benches and in car parks. 

The recreational use of this particular gas appears, in many respects, relatively novel in the UK. The hedonic potential of laughing gas has, however, been a big part of its history elsewhere. In the United States for instance – where ‘nitrious’ was adopted by medical practitioners earlier, more widely and for longer than in the UK– the line between the pharmaceutical and recreational use has been murky from the outset. For instance,  in 1895, in one of the earliest films to be shot at in Thomas Edison’s famous ‘Black Maria’ Studio, the ‘The Dentist Scene’ features a Dr Colton demonstratively applying nitrous oxide to his patient prior to the removal of a tooth. While ostensibly an educational film exploring the possibilities of the moving image, the fits of giggles that the patient goes through, were the main attraction. When the film was remade by Edwind Porter in 1907 as ‘Laughing Gas’, there was an explicit emphasis on the contagious laughter of the dental patient as she left the surgery and made her way through the subway, setting off giggles and guffaws in everybody she passed. This was followed five years later by a Charlie Chaplin film, also titled ‘Laughing Gas’. Not much later came the Betty Boop’s short ‘Ha Ha Ha’, in which, both the laughter and the gas escape the dentist’s office, first setting the paraphernalia of modernity – post boxes, type writers, bridges – into giggles before the absurdity spreads – once again – to the entire population of the city. The joy of huffing anaesthetic air has since featured everywhere from Bugs Bunny through Hammer Horror to Seinfeld and 30 Rock. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the gas also featured in the 1960s counterculture scene, and is mentioned in countless stories about surfer culture and pool parties in the Hollywood Hills. In the Grateful Dead film, the band are seen plumbing together a hookah pipe for their studio cannister of nitrous, and handing it between one another (maybe where the gas got its derogatory moniker, ‘hippy crack’ from). And even more recently, in 2012 the gas resurfaced in tabloid reports of Demi Moore’s ‘whippet parties’. All of this it should be noted, overlapped with nitrous oxides’ ongoing and widespread use in North American medicine and dentistry. 

This is in contrast to the UK which, by the 1930s, saw the medical use of nitrous oxide side-lined for the much-less-benign chloroform, opiates and other synthetic compounds. As such, the recreational use of laughing gas in the UK has a much shorter history and an entirely different set of connotations. By my own memory, young Londoners have been doing gas en masse, recreationally, for about fifteen years. The first nitrous balloons I saw were bobbing around between the fins and mullets the electro-clash scene in the early noughties, between 2003 and 2005, at Shoreditch’s Plastic People or Holborn’s The End. The same period also saw balloons and cannisters appearing at music festivals, particular those taking place in the parks of major cities. At that point, nitrous oxide and infamous litter of balloons and cannisters that accompanied it seemed like relatively niche subcultural accoutrements. Not that likely to catch on, for the fact that, while it was very cheap, the buzz was – compared to many other narcotic substances – incredibly fleeting and not that different from just holding one’s breathe for twenty seconds too long. There is a good reason that the global drug survey still routinely find users rating nitrous oxide as one of the worst value for money drugs.

Despite the poor value-for-money, laughing gas has subsequently soared to become the UKs third favourite recreational drug, with 8.7% of 16-24 reporting usage in 2018-19. The fact that nitrous oxide use has continued to grow in the UK is particularly notable for the fact the increased usage is in spite of the 2016 Psychoactive Substances act, a performative piece of knee-jerk legislation typical of the then Home Secretary, Theresa May responding to a new breed of synthetic drugs driving ‘zombie’ like addicts to purported acts of cannibalism.  The blanket ban, ostensibly destined to quash the proliferation of these new unpredictable synthetic compounds, also sought to criminalise laughing gas and its recreational users by making its sale for recreational purposes illegal. The ban was thwarted from the outset by the fact that nitrous oxide has a great many uses beyond giggles and anaesthesia. Notable amongst these is the suitability of the sweetish tasting gas in the catering industry where it is used for pushing whipped cream out of dispensers (a purpose for which it is sold, still today, on some of the most well-used shopping websites). It is ostensibly for whipped cream dispensers that nitrous oxide comes packaged in handy, pocket sized gas 8-gram cannisters, a pack of 40 for £35, which on the street, sell for “£3.50 a pop, two for a fiver”.

Far from being associated with giggly visits to the dentist, or prime time comedy, for many in the UK the connotations of laughing gas cannisters remain fixed by their association the new psychoactive synesthetic drugs which they were banned alongside, and their folk-devilish urban consumers. They have, as such, become a potent symbol of what some people see as social decay and depravity. Look no further than the tabloids wherein nitrous cannisters are routinely mentioned as detritus left behind in stories with the headlines such as “Flashing Blades,” “Rap Shooting”, “Beach Mayhem,”; a snapshot of The Sun’s stories on one day  all of which mention laughing gas cannisters found on the scene. Indeed, they probably were on the scene. There are areas of British cities where the accretion of laughing gas canisters trodden into the dusty earth of public parks, submerged into the soil flowerbeds, will almost certainly puzzle distant-future archaeologists of the Anthropocene. But as anyone who has either taken laughing gas, or seen somebody take it knows, it is hard to imagine that the gas itself might cause violent or harmful behaviour. As drug workers know well, compared to many psychoactive compounds, (and yes, alcohol) both the supply and consumption of the gas appears relatively harmless. Long term consumption has occasionally related to chronic numbness of digits and has been associated with some vitamin deficiencies. And of course, there have been a handful of serious injuries and deaths, normally from botched consumption; taking the compressed air directly from a cannister without an intermediary balloon. But it is not, as a chemical, addictive. And somebody high on laughing gas could barely tie their shoelaces, let alone carry out a shooting. At least until it had worn off. For the main part, the threat then has been said to be greatly exaggerated by conservative governments and urban councils tending to the interests of their increasingly suburban residents.

On the ground, the problem is much less likely to be the harm that the gas does to the individual consumer itself. Rather, the problem, is primarily one of litter, noise and residential complaints about both. You can see why this might be a problem. Each crack of a cylinder, for instance, emits a very loud high-pitched hiss. What is more, each hit only lasts for a short time, so the continual ‘cracking’ of cylinders is required until the user gets bored or supplies run out. The laughter that ensues, too, can be as loud as any laughter ricocheting off rebricks and concrete of a housing estate in the early hours of the morning. But what really constitutes the problem, is the disposal, or rather the non-disposal, of the piles of cannisters that accumulate as users seek thirty second hit after thirty second hit. Council and housing association cleaners, in particular, bemoan the piles of canisters they have sweep up every other morning and groan under the weighty sacks of metal they have to subsequently lug around. The canisters, if left around are also just the right size to lodge in drain covers and block the flow of excess water when it rains.  

The question government at both local and national level ought to be asking then is not ‘why are so many young people consuming laughing gas?’. Rather it is an older, more familiar question as to why young people litter? Especially all over the estates that they themselves live on. In an incisive paper on the experience of young people on a housing estate in South East England, Sarah Leany describes what she refers to as “place destruction as resistance”. Exploring the experiences of those living within a place that is widely stigmatized, Leany tries to understand why young people would, of their own volition, cut the branches of all the trees along a path toward a community centre on their housing estate. For Leany, the materiality of the estate was seen by young people as ‘emplacing them’, the stigmatization of the space fixing them into particular identities and trajectories. Ultimately, Leany argues that the cutting of branches it an act of resistance to the ways in which the young people are both symbolically and materially ‘placed’. It is an act of resistance. And it is a very effective form of resistance because, for such a small act, littering (and especially littering piles of eye-catchingly shiny metal junk) performatively defies the civic contract of rights and responsibilities around which residents of the UK are normatively socialised into. As such, it is very effective at pissing off anybody who might have bought into that contract and, by virtue of their own emplacement in the world, benefitted from it. Without condoning or condemning, we can understand why young people might litter their doorsteps. The wider stigmatization of the estates and neighbourhoods, even the families, that they live in adversely shape their lives and turns them against the very materiality of home.

That the main problem facing local government is one of litter and noise, does not mean that we should we should abandon the question as to why somebody might ‘do gas’. Such a widespread phenomenon, such a rapid ascent in popularity, might be able to tell us something more profound about the society that produced this trend. In this respect, it is worth remembering that, in its earliest representations, the chuckles triggered in the dentist’s chair escape the confines of the surgery and spread riotously through an urban landscape, in the end of Chaplin, Edison and Porters films. Therein laughing gas offers a form of joy to an otherwise joyless urban scene. And this joy is not just from the gas itself but from the playful movement through public urban space under the gas, the meeting of strangers and the sharing of laughter. As its earliest cinematic representations reveal, laughing gas was an emollient for early twentieth century wracked in turmoil. The laughter and numbness nitrous oxide induces were not really that different affects. Both mark the fleeting alleviation of pain. And herein lies one source of the dizzying vapour’s growing popularity in the 21st century and a partial explanation as to the metastasis of adolescent giggles across the park benches and playgrounds of British cities. Laughing gas and the sociality that surrounds it are a straightforward, very cheap, reasonably effective and comparatively harmless analgesic for the chronic pain of city life.

Dr Alex Rhys-Taylor is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.