Whippet Bad: A Flood of Nitrous Thefts Plagues U.K. Hospitals and Clinics

NOS thieves bust into medical centers in search of oxygen-deprived debauchery.

Despite legislation banning the improvised laughing gas in the United Kingdom, and shortages of the novel psychoactive substance in the United States––nitrous oxide, or NOS, also called “whippets,” continues to see widespread use among drug consumers. Long gone are the days when whippet fiends could stroll into a Stop & Shop, load up an armload of whip cream in aerosol cans, and indulge in a high-lactose gas party out in the parking lot.

Currently, a wave of nitrous thefts is breaking across the U.K.. In recent months, whippet larceny has dominated the NOS narrative in Britain's media cycle, with the odorless gas most notably coming up missing from veterinary clinics and hospitals.

As KINDLAND has previously covered:

“This toned-down laughing gas is still sold, semi-legally, in [U.S.] smoke shops and across the Internet. Nitrous is most accurately categorized as a grandfathered-in notation on an ever-expanding list of gray-area substances that range from DIY to designer highs and are often experimented with in ways not intended by original manufacturers. . . When inhaled directly, nitrous oxide, or a slightly different version huffed out of whipped cream canisters, can elicit feelings of euphoria, lightheadedness, and a brief escape from the here and now.”

So why are so many Britons jacking nitrous tanks these days?

Per the 2016 Global Drug Survey, nitrous oxide was the seventh-most-popular drug worldwide, but the second most popular drug in the U.K. that year. Nearly 23 percent of U.K. GDS respondents said they had taken the novel psychoactive substance in the 12 months preceding the survey’s release. The uptick in England’s whippet usage coincided with the 2016-enacted Psychoactive Substances Act. According to the Home Office, this “blanket ban on the sale, supply, importation and exportation of the dangerous drugs will apply across the U.K. whenever they are intended for human consumption,” and grants authorities “new powers to shut down ‘headshops’ and U.K.-based online dealers, helping to protect potential users from harm and communities from anti-social behaviour.”

Criticism of the legislation suggests that the ban––which exempts coffee, nicotine, and caffeine, includes synthetic cannabinoid “spice,” and defines psychoactive substances as anything “capable of producing a psychoactive effect in a person who consumes it, and is not an exempted substance”––has possibly given rise to criminal activity, and say its enactment potentially empowers black market suppliers. 

Thus the flood of nitrous thefts.

In May of 2016, a five-foot-high nitrous tank was stolen from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Veterinary Medicine. The incident was followed in September 2016, when two men reportedly took off in a black Audi from a Canterbury, England, hospital with six tanks in the boot, while four tanks were separately ganked from Scotland’s Victoria Hospital––both instances left police searching for the nitrous thieves.

Similarly, a U.K. woman was sentenced to prison following a year-and-a-half-long “crime spree,” which included the plunder of seven six-foot-tall nitrous tanks from Royal United Hospital in Bath, England. According to the BBC, enforcing the psychoactive substances ban meant a police crackdown on the laughing gas, with one raid turning up 50,000 canisters intended for sale. A previous BBC investigation had reporters buying black-market NOS canisters from vendors over Facebook.

Photo: Ben Karris/KINDLAND

These U.K. NOS thefts can, at least in part, be attributed to the popularity of nitrous-filled balloons being sold and consumed among ravers and British youth at house parties. 

"It probably should [concern me] but it's just become quite normal,” a woman told the BBC. "Every time you go out, if you go to a house party, it's always there.” 

As reported by VICE U.K.:

“. . .over 100 medical gas cylinders were reported stolen from healthcare facilities across the country, with the true figure likely to be even higher. . . The National Health Service (NHS) estimates that losses resulting from the thefts and damage caused by the burglaries were in excess of £100,000 [$125,000] that year. . . NOS was included in the Crime Survey for England and Wales for the first time in 2012-13, with 6.1 percent of adults aged 16 to 24 saying they'd taken nitrous oxide. That had risen to 7.6 percent by the following year.”

Though stealing sizable tanks of compressed nitrous oxide is no easy task, the criminal act continues trending. For now, though, the jacking of NOS from hospitals and veterinary clinics by users in search of oxygen-deprived debauchery, or suppliers seeking revenue, seems to be mostly contained to the U.K., whereas direct-to-consumer sale of off-label laughing glass is still widely legal in the United States.