Gangs selling laughing gas in Hackney go underground as 'legal high' is outlawed
PUBLISHED: 17:51 01 September 2016 | UPDATED: 17:51 01 September 2016
Emma Bartholomew accompanies the police out on a Friday night to see the extent of the nitrous oxide trade since it was made illegal - and finds that, although eradicated in Shoreditch, organised gangs now work in Dalston
“There will be people selling balloons tonight,” Sgt Mark Page tells me as we sit in the back of a Met people carrier.
“But because we can arrest them for it they’re going underground like cocaine sellers and being really sneaky about it.”
I am out with the night time economy team that patrols Shoreditch and picks up the pieces after 25,000 people descend on the area every Friday night.
I want to find out more about laughing gas – also known as nitrous oxide or nox – which until a year ago used to be a huge problem down here.
Back then sellers could be seen out on the streets in force throughout the early hours.
Hundreds of canisters, and the balloons the potentially lethal gas is dispensed in, would litter the streets.
At £5 a shot, there was big money to be made.
“They are bought for 30p each,” Mark says. “That’s the markup – 600 per cent profit. They can make £200 to £400 a night.”
Rewind 12 months and police were concerned about the organised gangs selling it but unsure how to clamp down on the legal high.
They got around the problem with the help of Hackney Council, and began prosecuting sellers through licensing rules.
“It was the only way we could deal with them,” Mark adds.
“Before the introduction of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 our police powers to deal with nitrous oxide were virtually zero.”
“Offenders would get a £150 ticket for illegal street trading and the council would seize all their canisters and paraphernalia and they would get a £90 ticket for littering.
“Many of them wouldn’t pay so a summons gets issued for non-payment and then it goes to court.
“They get a £600 fine for non-payment and they’re wanted. They soon learn.”
Sellers are a rare sight on the streets of Shoreditch now. But the problem has moved up the road to Dalston where there is no dedicated team like Mark’s patrolling at night.
This year police gained powers to deal with the drug when its street sale was made illegal through the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016.
Police can detain and search both people and vehicles now, and arrest anyone they think is selling the gas.
“Our plain clothes officers have stopped people in Hoxton Square who they think might be selling laughing gas – we’re heading over there now,” Mark tells me after a call comes through on his radio.
In Hoxton Square three men are being questioned outside the car in which they had been spotted inhaling the gas.
Users inhale the gas for a short rush. It starves the brain of oxygen, making users light-headed and disoriented for a few minutes.
Occasionally it can kill, by displacing oxygen from the body.
As well as the danger of asphyxiation, when the gas comes out of a canister it can be so cold it can burn. A cold shock at the back of the throat can affect the vagus nerve, causing the heart rate to suddenly slow.
Heavy use can also inactivate the body’s stores of vitamin B12, causing anaemia and nerve damage. The Global Drugs Survey found that about 4 per cent of users had symptoms like numbness, tingling and shooting pains in the limbs.
We are standing around a cardboard box containing several smaller boxes, each containing about 25 cannisters.
But it isn’t enough for the police to be able to say for sure whether the gas is intended for sale.
Still, the box is seized, and the men are moved on.
We drive up the road to Kingsland High Street to see the aftermath of nox selling.
Plenty of purple balloons and tiny silver canisters are strewn around the bus stop and outside a chicken takeaway, their sellers deterred by a council CCTV van which safety officers had parked up to film them.
“It’s cat and mouse – you turn up and they disappear,” says Mark. “They’ve gone further down the road.
“It might seem trivial to some that my team are targeting legal highs - but you only have to see the shouting, swearing, urinating in the street, walking across busy roads, littering and occasionally fights to realise that the use of nox on the streets increases antisocial behaviour.”
One of the council safety officers adds: “It’s very gang orientated – there might be 20 of them.
“They won’t all be selling it. There are some on pedal bikes watching for police.
“There are others on mopeds bringing the stuff backwards and forwards so they don’t have the stuff on them that gets them nicked, because they are only carrying a very small amount.
“They are very organised.
“You try and get them and they try and do one better to not get caught.
“Unfortunately, it’s a very hard battle.”