We’re only just beginning to understand the dramatic changes that the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought on our drug consumption habits. A United Nations report released in June stated that the number of people who had taken illegal drugs was up 22 percent this year, as compared with 2010. The study found that while the pandemic initially disrupted drug trafficking patterns, the supply chains have recovered — and may also be moving even more illegal substances to people than before.
Authorities in Ireland — an island nation where drug supply chains are easily disrupted — have identified one major change in their country: A rising tide of young people huffing nitrous oxide. Such consumption is a tricky prospect to control. Though Ireland made it illegal in 1991 to sell a minor anything that can be inhaled “for the purpose of causing intoxication,” nitrous, or whippets, are cheap and easily found via food supply companies and countless internet sources.
“During COVID [nitrous use] appears to have come back in a really big way,” Anna Quigley of Dublin’s Citywide Drugs Crisis Campaign told the Irish Times. “We have gotten reports from a lot of areas of it being used.”
She’s not the only one seeing an increase in the recreational employment of the canister-enclosed substance. This year’s Global Drugs Survey found that nitrous oxide is the seventh most popular drug in the world — and that young people in the United Kingdom consume more nitrous than any drug besides cannabis.
How dangerous is this rise in whippet wandering? Nitrous oxide is believed to harbor a low risk of physical addiction, that doesn’t mean that it’s without health risks. The drug can inactivate the B12 vitamin in the body, so heavy consumption can lead to a B12 deficiency in addition to neuronal cell death from hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, and DNA synthesis issues. (This harm reduction guide to nitrous by a Reddit user has some very straight-forward health advice for users of the substance.)
Ireland’s Health Research Board has not reported a nitrous-related death since 2004 (COVID-era numbers are unavailable, however, given restrictions on data access.) The National Poisons Information Centre told the Times that only seven cases of hospitalization from nitrous poisoning have been reported since 2005. In the UK, however, the government has recorded 36 deaths in which nitrous was involved between 2001 and 2016.
Some Irish users aren’t sure they see the issues with nitrous use, however.
“I have seen drugs devastate so many lives,” a casual, anonymous 19-year-old nitrous consumer told the Irish Times. “But I haven’t seen much harm from [nitrous-oxide]. Lots of people are using it but it’s not causing loads of problems aside from the litter.”
Those thoughts were echoed by Tony Duffin of the Ana Liffey Drug Project. “It’s not something that is really on our radar for drug use, like heroin or crack cocaine,” he told the Irish Times.