The Netherlands is banning the use of nitrous oxide – or laughing gas – over fears of the health risks among a growing number of young people using it. The ban, which will begin in the New Year, will make it illegal to buy, sell or own the gas apart from in specific circumstances.
The Dutch Government said it can still be used for medical purposes and in the hospitality industry.
Nitrous oxide is commonly used as a sedative or for pain relief in medical settings, and is used by caterers in foam or cream canisters.
However, when inhaled it can cause a short-lived high, making it a popular party drug.
The Netherlands hopes the ban will also reduce the number of road accidents it has noted involve use of the drug. Some 1,800 such accidents in the country are believed to have taken place in the past three years.
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While ingestion of nitrous oxide can be carefully controlled in a health setting, recreational inhalation has been linked to potentially fatal symptoms.
Maarten van Ooijen, the Dutch health secretary, said on Monday: “Recreational use of nitrous oxide poses enormous health risks.
“We have seen too many reports in the news about terrible accidents involving road users who have used nitrous oxide.”
Inhaling too much nitrous oxide can cause asphyxiation and unconsciousness, as well as internal cold burns.
Long-term effects of repeated use of the drug can include cardiac disorders, nerve damage and an inability to form new white blood cells.
Sale of the drug for recreational purposes was outlawed in the UK in 2016, but by 2021 it was the second most commonly used drug by 16-24-year-olds in the country.
Despite the high from it only lasting a matter of minutes, it is relatively cheap and readily available to buy online, attracting younger users.
Laurent Karila, an addiction psychiatrist and professor at the University of Paris Saclay, commented: “It can lead to irreversible after-effects from the very first doses.”
However, the Netherlands permits the possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use, which can be procured and ingested from coffee shops.
Marijuana is still a criminalised drug in the country – and can be confiscated by police – but personal consumption is tolerated by the authorities.
The Netherlands deems cannabis less dangerous than other drugs. Long-term use can have an impact on mental health, as well as sperm count and ovulation.
Medical experts have warned that nitrous oxide – owing to its short-lived effects – can become more addictive far quicker.
Professor Karila told French outlet 20 Minutes: “As with other drugs that give a feeling of pleasure, many users want to take them again to rediscover the effects they felt when they first took them, and for vulnerable people, it can become an addiction.
“Especially as the consumption of nitrous oxide generates a phenomenon of tolerance: gradually, the same dose produces fewer effects, so we will take a much larger dose to regain the sensations felt the first time.
“We see very heavy users, who can take several dozen or even hundreds of cartridges of nitrous oxide in one evening. However, we have not yet seen any waves of patients consulting specifically for nitrous oxide addiction.”
However, he added that France was seeing users hospitalised for complications linked to heavy usage.
Additional reporting by Maria Ortega