Why U.K. music festivals are cracking down on laughing gas
Science writer Zoe Cormier says Glastonbury's nitrous oxide ban is more about waste than health.
As summer arrives, a lot of people will be heading out to music festivals. It's a chance to listen to bands, take in some sun and, for some, indulge in drugs. Glastonbury is the latest in a growing number of UK festivals to push back against one particular drug: nitrous oxide. Also known as laughing gas, it can be found at the dentist or in aerosol cans.
Environment Canada lists nitrous oxide as a toxic substance and it is illegal for the general public to buy or sell. In a recent statement, Glastonbury said it's no longer welcome on their grounds, calling it "a damaging drug which pollutes our beautiful field with noise, litter and N2O gas."
Zoe Cormier has witnessed the growth of the drug in the UK music scene firsthand. As co-founder of the group Guerilla Science, she spent years staging science events at music festivals. She also looked at the early use of the drug in her book Sex, Drugs and Rock n' Roll: The Science of Hedonism and the Hedonism of Science.
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This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You've been to Glastonbury in the past. Paint me a picture of the nitrous oxide use you saw there.
The first time I went to Glastonbury was in 2003, so nitrous oxide was interestingly a new drug on the scene. This drug has been consumed for about two and a half centuries, but people didn't really understand how to produce it in a manner that was cheap, easy and mobile. And people were just starting to do it in 2003. It was known as hippy crack, because once you start doing it, you can't really stop. Loads of people now will sit in camp fields and do it all day. And you just want to go up to them and say, "You do realize you spent 200 pounds to be here and there's a stage over there filled with music."
So it's addictive then?
It depends on your personality. Addiction is a relative term. Something can be habit forming and something can be addictive. I wouldn't say that nitrogen is addictive because it doesn't cause withdrawal... but I digress. You asked me what Glastonbury looks like with nitrous.
In 2003, it was not a factor. There were a few people who knew how to do it [who would] basically bring the materials with which to do it. Now, at every festival, it's everywhere. All you need is the capsules full of the gas that you can buy at any confectionery store to make whipped cream, one of the dispensers and some balloons. Some people come to festivals with their suitcases or their backpacks just clinking with metal because they've brought all the gear to do enormous amounts of it. You can also make a fortune if you go around with that gear, selling them for a pound a pop.
And I would say of all the drugs I've ever seen people do, it is the worst in terms of the garbage that it produces. Because for one single hit, you have to use a metal canister that weighs about 20 grams and it's about two or three inches long. It's left on the ground and at the end of the festival, it's glittering with these things.
Glastonbury says they're banning the drug this year. Do you think they'll be successful?
They absolutely will not be successful, but I do think it's very important that they make this gesture. For one, there's the waste, as I mentioned. Number two, there was somebody last year or two years ago who left some of those canisters in a fire and they exploded. They almost died from the injuries.
But anti-drug activists say that there is a risk of death associated with nitrous through a lack of oxygen. What do you make of that?
Of all the drugs I've seen people do, I would say this is not the most dangerous. If there's any drug that I would say is dangerous and they really should clamp down on, it's ketamine. That can cause absolutely terrible damage to your bladder.
Who's the first person to start using nitrous for pleasure?
The first person to start using nitrous for pleasure was the founder of the Royal Society, Sir Humphry Davy. He was tasked with investigating combustible gases at an institute just outside of Bristol, which will make anyone who knows Britain laugh because Bristol was then and is now a hotbed of drug use. He started investigating a number of gases. For example, he almost died from carbon monoxide poisoning. Another one of my favourite things about Humphry Davy is that he tried everything on himself first. He didn't give it to animals and he didn't give it to people. He gave it to himself. And the word for that is chivalry.
What happened when the chivalrous scientist took nitrous oxide?
I'd like to quote, because I can't possibly phrase it better than he put it. This is from his journal, "A highly pleasurable thrilling, particularly in the chest and extremities. Objects around me became dazzling and my hearing more acute. This gas raised my pulse upwards of twenty strokes, made me dance about the laboratory as a madman and has kept my spirits in a glow ever since."
So Sir Humphry Davy obviously didn't have canisters available to him. How did he administer the nitrous oxide to himself?
He administered it in every way he could. He used silken bags, he used metal mouthpieces. My favourite invention was a box that he could sit inside that was like a sedan chair. He would get inside the box and have his assistants fill it with the gas. At one point he consumed 80 quarts. This puts any Glastonbury balloon lover to shame. This is what a real gentleman scientist can accomplish when he puts his mind to it.
What would Humphry Davy say if he time travelled to Glastonbury this summer?
Kids, I get where you're coming from, but construct a more environmentally responsible apparatus.