Medsafe looking into accessibility of nitrous oxide as UK moves to ban it

Medsafe says it's looking into issues around the supply of nitrous oxide as the UK makes moves to ban it.

The gas is sold over the counter here to make whipped cream but it's also commonly inhaled as a recreational high. But the Drug Foundation is calling for calm.

Nos, nangs, laughing gas - nitrous oxide has many street names. And the metal canisters that fuel the recreational high can be found on our streets.

"Definitely been more visible recently," said former drug user Danny Kittner.

Kittner used to get high on nitrous oxide, he's been clean for 12 years.

"It was accessible and easy and seemed like an exciting thing to do and it definitely was quite a powerful drug," he said.

The gas is usually inhaled using a balloon and gives users get a rush for a few minutes. But scenes in the UK have prompted a government move to ban it.

"We're doing this because if you walk through any urban park, you will see these little silver canisters, which are the evidence of people regarding public spaces as arenas for drug-taking. That is unacceptable," said UK Secretary of State Michael Gove.

Newshub quickly found evidence on the streets of Auckland but Drug Foundation doesn't want a ban here.

"When you think about the disproportionate nature of say, a young person trying out cannabis, or in this case nitrous oxide, they're probably going to have short-lived consequences, but the consequence of a criminal conviction is life-long," said NZ Drug Foundation executive director Sarah Helm.

Medsafe said it is looking into issues around supply though. Group manager Chris James told Newshub they are "continuing to review issues around the supply of nitrous oxide".

"It is Medsafe's opinion that retailers supplying recreational users bear a responsibility for the harm this activity may cause."

It's not hard to find nitrous oxide in central Auckland with a 10-pack available for $16 from a dairy on K Road.

But that's because it was bought with the alleged purpose of making whipped cream - retailers caught selling it for recreational purposes can face up to six months in prison or a $40,000 fine.

The problem is, we don't know how much is being consumed. Since nitrous oxide is not a controlled substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act, police told Newshub they do not keep records relating to its use or seizure.

Public hospital records provide a bit more insight. There were six hospitalisations in the year to 2020, three the following year and two the year after.

"If you use it for a prolonged period of time extensively you can end up with a B-12 deficiency that then gives you damage to your nerves," Helm said.

Kittner said he fears for disengaged youth.

"I think accessibility is definitely something we should be paying attention to," he told Newshub.

Which could be why Medsafe is looking into how accessible it is to make sure NOS doesn't blow up here like in the UK.