Image of discarded nitrous oxide chargers in Islington

Concerns as nitrous oxide bought via social media in Islington

Young people in Islington can buy nitrous oxide, known as hippy crack or whippet, online and via social media for illegal recreational use.

It is now illegal to possess nitrous oxide with the intention of inhaling it for its psychoactive side-effects, but it can still be easily purchased via social media sites where drug dealers’ phone numbers and websites are clearly displayed.

Searching for posts tagged with both #Islington and the various nicknames for nitrous oxide like #fastwhip, #smartwhip, #whip-it on sites such as TikTok generates hundreds of results with numbers or websites where Islington residents can buy nitrous oxide.

David Dunkley, 45, a manager of a youth drug and alcohol service in London and provider of the drug awareness program Howzthat1, explained: “Because of the power of technology, you can now buy drugs anonymously through social media.”

Young people can now access the drug via social media sites like Snapchat and Instagram, or the messaging service Telegram.

Image of TikTok search results that show posts of nitrous oxide dealers on social media selling in Islington
Nitrous oxide at the click of a button: a brief search on social media with the relevant hashtags generates dealers’ numbers and websites where nitrous oxide can be bought.

Nitrous oxide is used most by the 16-24 age group and is only second to cannabis in popularity, with young people taking it in private spaces and easily buying it online via e-commerce giants like Amazon.

“Shaun”*, 24, an Islington resident who has previously used nitrous oxide, explained: “We did it for fun at parties, it’s not the sort of thing you do on the streets or that I see being used or sold on the streets in Islington.

“I didn’t even buy nitrous oxide myself, it was brought by people at parties every time I used balloon.

“I think they bought it on Amazon.”

Kelham*, 26, an Islington resident who has repeatedly spotted littered nitrous oxide canisters, noted: “It seems to me as though the majority of people perhaps take nitrous oxide at home in a group of friends, where peer pressure may be prevalent, and simply throw the canisters out with the rubbish when they are done or just toss them out onto the road or wherever is convenient to them.”

Discarded nitrous oxide canisters, balloons and chargers are usually the only trace in Islington that the substance has been taken, meaning public anti-social behaviour, like taking nitrous oxide in parks or while operating vehicles, is not a concern in the area.

This comes after the Home Office justified the nitrous oxide ban this November: “As the government delivers on its zero-tolerance approach to antisocial behaviour.”

Detective Superintendent Adam Ghaboos, Drugs Lead Responsible Officer at the Met Police, reinforced this view in detailing nitrous oxide policing policies: “This decision will support our New Met for London plan, which outlines our commitment to cut crime in our communities, reduce antisocial behaviour, and help to keep Londoners safe.”

Anti-social behaviour is defined as “behaviour by a person which causes, or is likely to cause, harassment, alarm or distress to persons not of the same household as the person” by the Met Police, but there is little evidence that nitrous oxide usage in Islington is connected with this type of behaviour.

Kelham said: “I am yet to witness a link between antisocial behaviour and nitrous oxide usage — I haven’t noticed or seen anybody actually taking nitrous oxide, just cans littered around on roads and in grassy areas now and again.”

Depicting nitrous oxide use as purely criminal and antisocial may prevent those struggling with drug misuse problems from receiving proper support, as Dunkley highlighted: “You need a multidisciplinary approach — it needs to begin with education, instead of an old school and punitive approach.”

Support is available in Islington for those struggling with nitrous oxide misuse via the Better Lives service.

*Names have been changed

Main photo credit: “Kelham”

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