Youth advocates call for better regulation of nitrous oxide cannisters known as ‘nangs’
Youth advocates are calling for better regulation of the sale of nitrous oxide canisters, or “happy gas”. (Supplied: Nicqui Yazdi)
Youth advocates are calling for better regulation of the sale of nitrous oxide canisters, or “nangs”, which are used for recreational drug use.
In schoolies hubs such as Byron Bay and the Gold Coast, the canisters can be found littered along the foreshore — the refuse of a night “on the nangs”.
What is a ‘nang’?
- A “nang” is the street name given to a small canister of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas
- It is available over the counter, and has various uses including in medicine and hospitality
- However, selling it for non-medical human consumption is illegal in NSW
- It can cause brain damage, memory loss, a weakened immune system and incontinence
Co-ordinator of Byron Bay Schoolies Safety Response, Nicqui Yazdi, said she had seen an increase in the number of schoolies using the canisters, which are readily available from supermarkets and convenience stores.
Ms Yazdi said shopkeepers needed to be more responsible.
“The reality is, they just shouldn’t be selling them in the first place,” she said.
“Any shop owner, manager or anyone ordering stock would have to know exactly what that is being used for.
“Young people are forthcoming in telling us what they are using nangs for. I am sure that young people are going into shops and boasting about using them as well.”
Police say the laws relating to the sale of nitrous oxide canisters are difficult to enforce. (ABC North Coast: Hannah Ross)
Cause for concern
The number of people using nitrous oxide is on the rise.
An annual survey of a focus group of New South Wales drug users carried out by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) showed the use of nitrous oxide in the group that jumped from 55 per cent in 2017 to 75 per cent in 2018.
This is despite the harmful effects of nitrous oxide becoming well known.
Side-effects range from vomiting and fainting to brain damage, hypoxia and sudden death from lack of oxygen.
A patient struggles to walk after suffering spinal injuries from her use of “nangs”. (ABC 7.30)
NSW Health acting chief health officer, Jeremy McAnulty, said it was difficult to collect data on rates of hospitalisation or deaths from inhaling nitrous oxide because the body quickly eliminates the drug, meaning it rarely shows up in blood or urine tests.
Ms Yazdi said these health problems could be eliminated if police enforced the laws relating to the sale of nitrous oxide canisters.
Challenges with legislation
NSW laws state that it is an offence for someone to supply or sell nitrous oxide to another knowing it is to be used for human consumption. The maximum penalty is two years imprisonment.
Detective Chief Inspector Brendon Cullen from the Tweed-Byron Local Area Command (LAC) said enforcing the laws is challenging as the substance crosses a number of legislative boundaries.
“There is the possibility that it is an offence under the Drugs Misuse and Trafficking Act, but how do police prove that it is being used for psychoactive effect unless someone actually states that to police?” he said.
“You have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that it is being misused. I would say that the legislation poses difficulties.”
Detective Chief Inspector Cullen said officers from his LAC had in the past seized a number of the nitrous oxide cannisters at local music festivals, including Splendour in the Grass, but charges were not laid.
Indeed, data from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research confirmed even when police laid charges it was difficult to prosecute.
During the 12 months to June 2018, only five people across the state were charged with knowingly suppling a psychoactive substance for human consumption. All of these people were found not guilty.
Regulation of the sale of nitrous oxide canisters also falls outside the jurisdiction of the NSW Department of Fair Trading, with the Department making the following statement:
Small gas canisters are legitimately sold for purposes such as whipping cream, use in high performance cars or, short-term pain relief with medical supervision.
Under Australian Consumer Law, Fair Trading does not ban products that have a legitimate purpose but are misused.
As an example, knives and baseball bats are goods that can be used inappropriately to harm others — Fair Trading does not ban them.
Users of nitrous oxide or “nangs” are intentionally misusing a product that has a legitimate use.
Responsibility of retailers
Criminal lawyer John Sutton said if the Government were serious about preventing the abuse of nitrous oxide canisters it could tweak legislation to further restrict their sale.
“It’s analogous to when one goes into a hardware store and all the paints are locked away to prevent people from using them to graffiti buildings. It’s a point-of-sale question,” he said.
“It’s very much a grey area and will require someone to put some thought to it, which doesn’t appear to have occurred at this stage.”
Jane Laverty from the NSW Business Chamber said although regulating the sale of potentially dangerous products what not part of its remit, retailers were not averse to being “part of the solution”.
“It does come back to some level of responsible service and for an owner of a business to stock something that’s a product that they know has a capacity to be abused is one thing and they can certainly manage that,” Ms Laverty said.
“It certainly does sound like an area that needs some attention and that needs groups of business leaders to work with those in the community to address it.”
Ms Yazdi said these sounded like empty words.
“One shop in particular in Byron Bay, they are at point-of-sale, they are literally at eye-view of people walking into that shop. Our calls have been ignored essentially,” she said.