Authorities are moving to crack down on laughing gas (nitrous oxide) as a recreational drug because it is becoming easier to obtain through online sales of bicycle tire inflators, which normally use carbon dioxide.
The product in question, called Sivagus, was being sold in silver canisters about 5-cm long by a retail website in London in mid-November that described it in Japanese as a “refill device for bicycle tires.” A set of five costs ¥5,000.
The website of the retailer, which specializes in offering legal highs, goes out of its way to explain that “the product contains absolutely no substances that have been banned in Japan.”
Authorities believe the recreational popularity of nitrous oxide (N2O) is starting to spread to Japan as the recent crackdown on so-called kiken, or “dangerous,” synthetic drugs formerly called dappo (loophole) drugs, has made them hard to find.
The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is thus preparing to classify Sivagus as a scheduled drug that must adhere to the laws regulating medical products and devices by the end of the month. The Metropolitan Police Department, in turn, is preparing to tighten controls on the gas, which is normally used as a light anesthetic.
According to the health ministry, the main ingredient of Sivagus, is N2O, used as a general anesthetic in operations and dental treatment. It is also used as a food additive to make the lather for whipped cream, and has become a popular booster fuel in cars souped-up for street racing.
Partygoers, often with the use of balloons, inhale it because it is known to cause a state of euphoria and relaxation that often leads one to giggle.
While not physically addictive like crack cocaine or heroin, inhaling nitrous in large quantities can damage the nervous system, cause heart attacks, or lead to asphyxiation through oxygen deprivation — especially if frequent inhaling becomes a habit, experts say.
“Sivagus is addictive because the effect only lasts a short period and is therefore often used at a stretch. It has become popular in the West, mainly in Britain,” said lawyer Sakae Komori, who is knowledgeable about drug problems in Japan. “Regulations are necessary to stop its abuse in Japan before it’s too late.”
In October 2012, the BBC reported that London teenager Joseph Benett died from a heart attack after inhaling nitrous oxide with friends.
In July, The daily London Evening Standard reported that the death of another teen had been linked to the gas, and that 17 people in the U.K. had died from the legal high between 2006 and 2012.
Kiken, loophole drugs have become difficult to acquire since a nationwide crackdown eliminated all head shops selling them in July.
But nitrous oxide presents yet another loophole: While it is illegal to sell or advertise nitrous oxide for medical purposes without a license, there is no regulation banning its marketing for other purposes. In fact, the police can’t even confiscate it.
“It is not easy to crack down on it at the moment,” a senior police official admitted.
The health ministry plans to strengthen measures against laughing gas, including by asking Internet providers to block retail websites selling the gas.
Once it is classified as a scheduled drug, the use, possession or selling of laughing gas except for medical purposes will be prohibited.
“When Sivagus becomes a scheduled drug we will have the right to strengthen regulations,” another senior police official said.
Kyoto and Tottori prefectures are already moving to classify nitrous oxide as a scheduled drug.