Nitrous oxide controversy revived as students and parties return from quarantine

"Laughing gas ampoules on the street" (CC BY 2.0) by Sebastiaan ter Burg
"Laughing gas ampoules on the street" (CC BY 2.0) by Sebastiaan ter Burg

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Usually after any celebration or holiday Utrechters can find countless egg sized nitrous cartridges littering the city, caught between cobblestones and floating in public fountains and waterways. But for the last few months with the corona restrictions, the problem has abated – and the streets were nearly clear of the shiny canisters. But now the discarded metal bottles of nitrous oxide or ‘laughing gas’ has became such a nuisance again that a renewed call for new regulations is gaining support in Utrecht.

Sander van Waveren, the local chairman for the political group CDA says it’s time to investigate limiting or even banning the sale and use of nitrous in the Utrecht city limits. He cites many complaints about not only the ‘mess on the street’ but rowdy behavior, noisemaking and even the use of the intoxicant by drivers. He likened the issue to drunk driving in a recent interview, “It’s like drinking alcohol behind the wheel.” But thus far, no motorist has actually been arrested for nitrous intoxication in the province. 

Nonetheless, the issue has become awakened by the sheer popularity of the chemical, a gas compound most often given by dentists for pain and less commonly used by doctors as an anesthetic. Commercially, nitrous is found in whipped cream products and specialty scuba diving merchandise.

Recreationally, nitrous oxide is most often enjoyed by young people for a short, elevated high that comes from inhaling the gas from a balloon; balloons filled by the familiar ‘silver bullet’ gas canisters found in the wake of many Dutch concerts, parties and celebrations. The clear, sweet smelling gas can intoxicate a person for 2-5 minutes during which time users appear drunk and unsteady. Fainting from lack of oxygen is not uncommon among teenagers doing ‘whippets’ in local parks and clubs, and occasionally emergency services are called to revive them. Unfortunately, proof of actual health consequences are thus far mostly anecdotal, though many studies about the short and long term health effects are currently in progress. 

As of today, nitrous oxide continues to be legal to purchase and readily available in most towns in the Randstad despite these realities. The Utrecht municipality has been aware of the problem for quite some time, and has begun to consider the issue. In particular, the neighborhoods of Kanaleneiland, Overvecht, Lombok and Nijverheidskade are reported littered with countless waste canisters and used balloons everywhere and therefore under scrutiny.

But things are beginning to be reconsidered. Locally, the CDA is pushing Utrecht city officials to take a more pioneering role and ban the sale and use of nitrous oxide in public spaces, in this case as a General Local Ordinance (APV). Nationally, a proposal introduced last month by the State Secretary Blokhuis (VWS) and Minister Grapperhaus (J&V) may bring an end to the recreational use of the compound altogether.

The cabinet has proposed placing nitrous oxide on list II of the Opium Act, making only legitimate uses legal.  This would effectively ban the unregulated sale and use of laughing gas for the public.  There is also a call for more educational materials about the health and safety issues involving nitrous, and funds for that effort are included in the bill as well.

If the new law is passed, starting in January of 2021 wholesalers can only sell nitrous oxide whipped cream cartridges to an approved list of companies, with no more than 250 units per transaction. The reselling of the chemical in any way would also become strictly prohibited.  A few limited consumer sales may be permitted with severe limits.  Buyers must be over 18, with a legitimate use for the gas, a purchase limit of 10 ampoules and a record of the transaction will be required.

Debate on this proposal is happening now, so look for continued dialogue as more corona restrictions are lifted and the ‘silver bullets’ return to our streets and parks.  And make your voice heard by commenting on this story with the feedback form below.

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About the Author

Jeffrey Scott Pearson

Jeffrey Scott Pearson

It seems no matter how I share my experiences - in a concert hall, an art gallery or a classroom – I am always a storyteller and my subject is truth. Throughout my life I have always felt my place in this world was to foster communication and love. I now seek to share my wisdom, my passion and my maturity to help others tell their important stories.

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1 Response

  1. Avatar Linny says:

    I dont mind whatever they are taking, drinking, breathing. As long they do not leave litter and will not disturb neighbours.

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