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Police hope new powers will help curb organised criminal networks selling laughing gas in Shoreditch

PUBLISHED: 16:05 17 November 2014 | UPDATED: 16:05 17 November 2014

Nitrous oxide canisters, balloons and dispensers that were seized in Shoreditch

Nitrous oxide canisters, balloons and dispensers that were seized in Shoreditch

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Police are hoping new powers will curb organised criminal networks competing to sell laughing gas on the streets of Shoreditch.

Police are hoping new powers will curb organised criminal networks competing to sell laughing gas on the streets of Shoreditch.

Until dispersal orders were introduced in the Anti-social Behaviour Act on October 20, police were reliant on Hackney Council officers to combat sellers of the legal high, nitrous oxide, through unauthorised street trading legislation.

The gas produces a short term euphoria likened to a “snort” of cocaine, but it can have devastating consequences including blackouts and heart attacks, and was to blame for the deaths of 17 people between 2006 and 2012.

While it is illegal to sell the canisters – which are designed for use in the catering industry to dispense whipped cream – for “recreational” purposes, it is not illegal to inflate balloons with the gas and sell them.

On a typical weekend in Shoreditch, sellers can be seen dishing out balloons to a queue of willing participants and in July – on one night alone – police seized “laughing gas” with a street value of about £6,500 outside the pubs and clubs of Shoreditch.

But last weekend a seller was arrested for breaching a dispersal order after police ordered him to move on and he returned to his pitch.

Acting Ch Insp Ian Simpkins from Hackney Police said: “The upside to balloon selling is vast profits, and the downsides are few.

“It’s a highly lucrative illegal trade that could rapidly escalate and get out of control.

“At the moment we have a melee of people selling it and it’s causing an organised criminal network to form around it because people can make a profit.

“There is now competition for place on the street and that’s causing friction so we need to address it as quick as we can.

“We were getting fights between buyers, people waiting too long, people pushing in to queues, people being overcharged, people not wanting to pay.”

He continued: “We think we have an effective tool now, whereas two or three weeks ago we didn’t.

“There’s been a noticeable decrease in the last few weeks since we have been warning people, but at its previous trajectory it could have gone the way of hotdog sellers, which was deeply concerning.

“It sounds quite innocuous, but there is vast amounts of money in hotdog selling, you’ll see them pushing the trolleys around Westminster,” he explained.

“It’s illegal and not only are they totally disgusting, but like the balloon sellers they are in it for an easy buck.

“If you have a pitch that’s particularly lucrative you don’t want anyone else coming in with another load of canisters to take your trade.”

Ch Insp Simpkins believes more research is needed on the effects of nitrous oxide and whether its sale should be made illegal.

“If you take too much of it, it displaces oxygen out of the blood and how that affects on the brain if you are drunk or you have taken other illegal drugs is as yet unknown. We know it can kill.

“We don’t know the long term effects and the real dangers, the country doesn’t even know the scale of the problem.”


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