“I didn’t imagine being like this in my 20s,” says Musa as his doctor escorts him to a West Midlands hospital room. “I don’t know how I’m going to live if the result is that I can’t walk straight again.”
Just a few weeks ago, Musa, not her real name, was carefree, having fun with her friends and thinking about her future. Now, he’s facing the potentially life-changing consequences of his nitrous oxide habit.
Nitrous oxide, more commonly known as “laughing gas” or “nos,” can give users a 30-second euphoria that leaves them feeling light-headed and light-headed, but the gas is no laughing matter.
Amid reports from doctors of an increase in hospitalizations, the government is now considering stricter regulations on the use and sale of the gas.
Nitrous oxide is legitimately used in hospitals, dentists and professional kitchens, but providing it for its psychoactive effects is illegal.
Providers can be fined and face up to seven years in prison, but only four people have been arrested in connection with nitrous oxide in the West Midlands since the Psychoactive Substances Act was passed in 2016.
Musa was rushed to the hospital after he woke up during the night to go to the bathroom and fell to the floor. He couldn’t get up because he had lost feeling in his legs and feet.
In the previous weeks, Musa had consumed several large cans of nitrous oxide almost daily.
His MRI shows that he has developed a spinal cord abnormality, and doctors still cannot say when or to what extent this will be repaired.
“This could be something permanent. It’s messing up my life. I have dreams and ambitions,” says Musa, anxiously rubbing his knuckles.
According to Musa, buying canisters of laughing gas from the corner stores is as easy as buying a loaf of bread. Residents in her neighborhood told Sky News they saw schoolchildren hanging around these stores breathing in the toxic gas.
So Sky News went undercover to investigate how easy it is to buy.
We were given a list of shops that had already been reported to West Midlands Police as suspected of selling nitrous oxide.
Our reporter went to the counter at the first store and asked for a can. The woman replied, “Yes, which one? The big one?”.
She bent down to retrieve a tin larger than a can of hairspray from under the counter, placed it in a shopping bag and offered a receipt for our £30 purchase.
See more information: Laughing gas will be banned under anti-social behavior crackdown
The next store we entered took us through a back door to the stack of nitrous oxide canisters. They asked us to hand over our backpack and they put the canister inside, no questions asked.
Stores didn’t ask how old we were or what we intended to do with the nitrous oxide, each store added a pack of party balloons which are commonly used to inhale the gas.
David Nicholl, clinical lead neurology at Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust, says he sees dozens of patients aged between 16 and 24 admitted to his ward every month for nitrous oxide abuse.
He says this is a big increase from previous years and claim admissions have increased since big can brands started flooding the market in 2021.
This increase is repeated in other cities. Data provided by the London Ambulance Service shows that 999 calls for nitrous oxide-related incidents more than tripled in a year, with 65 calls recorded in 2021 and 213 in 2022, up from 36 calls in 2018.
These patients can suffer from a range of issues, from loss of mobility to mental health issues and sexual dysfunction. Two patients with nitrous oxide had to have drains inserted in their brains to save their eyesight.
In very severe cases, the consequences can be deadly, with nitrous oxide linked to the deaths of 62 people since 2001.
“Maybe once every five or six years, I see a patient who has had a stroke from cocaine use. Yet every week I see it in my ward. So from my point of view, this is actually a bigger issue,” he said.
The Doctor. Nicholl is aware of the easy availability of toxic gas at corner stores and would like to see tighter policing of suppliers.
Policing Minister Chris Philp has asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to provide advice on how to deal with nitrous oxide abuse by the end of February.
“Shouldn’t it be cool, definitely not,” says Musa. “There have been times when I’ve been in a car with a balloon bigger than the size of my head.”
But some feel that restricting nitrous oxide use is unwise.
Harry Sumnall, Professor of Substance Use at Liverpool John Moores University, said: “Drug laws are a blunt instrument and are not an effective health-enhancing tool for users.
“Criminalization actually poses the risk that users could be diverted to other substances and, if it becomes illegal, they could be encouraged to buy on the dark web.
“There are over 600,000 users of nitrous oxide in the UK, and most people, if they are using it, will do so a few times a year, with really low risk levels.”
Since we last spoke to him, Musa has been released from the hospital. He returned home on crutches, still unsure if he would ever be able to walk properly again.
The government has given itself until the end of this month to start working on a solution, but any action it takes will come too late for people like Musa.