“I didn’t picture being like this at 20 years old,” says Musa as his doctor wheels him into a room in a West Midlands hospital. “I don’t know how I’ll live if the outcome is I can’t walk properly again.”
Only a matter of weeks ago, Musa, not his real name, was carefree, having fun with his friends and thinking about his 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 high that makes them feel dizzy and lightweight, but the gas is no laughing matter.
Amid reports from doctors of a spike in hospitalisations, the government is now considering stricter regulations around the use and sale of the gas.
Nitrous oxide is used legitimately in hospitals, dentists and professional kitchens but supplying it for its psychoactive effects is illegal.
Suppliers can get fined and receive up to seven years in prison, but only four people have been held in relation to nitrous oxide in the West Midlands since the Psychoactive Substances Act was passed in 2016.
Musa was rushed to hospital after he woke up in the night to go to the toilet and fell to the floor. He couldn’t get back up again because he’d lost feeling in his legs and feet.
In the weeks before, Musa was consuming multiple large canisters of nitrous oxide, almost on a daily basis.
His MRI scan shows he’s developed a spinal cord abnormality, and doctors can’t yet tell when or to what extent this will repair.
“This could be a permanent thing. It’s messed up my life. I’ve got dreams and ambitions,” Musa says, anxiously rubbing his knuckles.
According to Musa, buying laughing gas canisters from corner shops is as easy as buying a loaf of bread. Residents in his neighbourhood told Sky News they had seen school-age children hanging around outside these shops breathing in the toxic gas.
So, Sky News went undercover to investigate just 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 walked up to the counter of the first shop and asked for a canister. The woman replied, “Yes, which one? The big one?”.
She leaned down to pick up a canister bigger than a hairspray can from below the counter, popped it in a shopping bag, and offered a receipt for our £30 purchase.
Read more: Laughing gas to be banned under anti-social behaviour crackdown
The next shop we entered took us through a door in the back to their stack of nitrous oxide canisters. They asked us to hand them our rucksack and they put the canister inside, no questions asked.
The shops didn’t ask how old we were or what we intended to do with the nitrous oxide, every shop added in a packet of party balloons which are commonly used to inhale the gas.
Dr David Nicholl, the clinical lead for neurology at Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust, says he sees dozens of patients aged 16-24 years old admitted to his ward every month for nitrous oxide abuse.
He says this is a huge rise from previous years and claims admissions have increased since large canister brands began to flood the market in 2021.
That rise is echoed in other cities. Data provided by the London Ambulance Service show that 999 calls for incidents relating to nitrous oxide 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 problems, from loss of mobility to mental health issues and sexual dysfunction. Two nitrous oxide patients have even had to have drains inserted into their brains to save their eyesight.
In very severe cases the consequences can be deadly, with nitrous oxide related to the deaths of 62 people since 2001.
“Maybe once every five or six years, I’ll see a patient who’s had a stroke from taking cocaine. Yet, every week, I’m seeing this in my ward. So from my point of view, this is actually a bigger problem,” he said.
Dr Nicholl is aware of the easy availability of toxic gas in corner shops, and would like to see tougher policing of suppliers.
Minister for policing, Chris Philp, has called on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to provide advice on tackling nitrous oxide abuse by the end of February.
“It shouldn’t be legal, definitely not,” Musa says. “There’s been times I’ve been in a car with a balloon bigger than the size of my head.”
But some think a clamp down on nitrous oxide use is unwise.
Harry Sumnall, a professor in substance use at Liverpool John Moores University said: “Drug laws are a blunt instrument and are not an effective health improvement tool for users.
“Criminalisation actually poses the risk that users could be diverted to other substances, and if it becomes illegal they might be encouraged to buy from the dark web.
“There are more than 600,000 nitrous oxide users in the UK, and most people, if they are using it, are going to be using it a few times a year, at really low levels of risk.”
Since we last spoke to him, Musa has been discharged from hospital. He went home on crutches, still uncertain whether he will be able to walk properly again.
The government has given itself till the end of this month to start working on a solution, but any action it might take will come too late for people like Musa.