Visible litter only means of tracking nitrous oxide use

The popularity of the use of the drug is measured by the amount of visible drug-related litter left behind. Rebecca Daly investigates this and the problem as a whole.

The popularity of the use of nitrous oxide is measured by drug-related litter

The popularity of the use of nitrous oxide as a drug is measured by the amount of visible drug-related litter left behind, the National Planning Specialist department of the HSE has revealed.  

A Freedom of Information request to the HSE asked for a timeline of the popularity of the use of nitrous oxide. It said, “On review of the Irish situation, reports from community services indicate that nitrous oxide use began emerging in some Dublin communities over the last 18 months to two year period based on visible drug-related litter.”

In this case, “visible drug-related litter” means small cylindrical canisters or “whippets” used to charge whipped cream dispensers. These whippets are placed into a dispenser to fill a balloon that users can then inhale. 

A follow-up question about this confirmed that at the moment, the only way the popularity of the use of the drug is measured in Ireland is by the visible litter left behind. 

A spokesperson from the HSE National Social Inclusion Office said, “At present, nitrous oxide is not represented in traditional data sets such as in the general population survey, treatment data or the national drug-related death index.”

Drug use behaviour data is usually captured at a national level by the Health Research Board, who conduct general population surveys, collate treatment figures, and gather publications on drug-related deaths. 

The HSE is also presented with information on emerging trends from hospital presentations, stakeholders, and services. However, in terms of nitrous oxide use in Ireland, community services highlighting visible drug litter is the only method of reporting this issue. 

“Nitrous oxide prevalence has developed at a slower pace in Ireland compared to European counterparts, who report use over a longer period of time,” the spokesperson said. 

This method of tracking the popularity of the drug could mean that many issues relating to it could go under the radar – if whippet users correctly dispose of their litter instead of leaving it lying around streets and in parks. 

Fianna Fáil councilor Shane Moynihan said that the use of nitrous oxide as a drug is a “sleeping issue” in his local electorate area of Palmerstown-Fonthill. 

As a result of people being confined to their 5km during the first lockdown, the issue came to a head as whippets could be seen discarded in parks and residential areas. 

“That brought it into focus for people. First of all, asking what they were and obviously people were able to find out effectively that it’s drug taking but also then the dangers inherent to them,” Moynihan said. 

Whippets are used in catering and because of this, they are easily purchased online by anyone who comes across them. Moynihan said, “There are dealers that are buying bulk packets of these online because they can and masquerading as catering companies and then they’re dealing them out at massive markup.”

In relation to how the popularity of this drug is traced, Moynihan said, “The issue at hand is because they are legal for use in catering and stuff like that, it’s very difficult. I struggle to think of how else you would track it.” 

Monitoring the sale of whippets through online platforms is perhaps the only viable way to prevent them from being used for non-legitimate reasons. Without a system to ensure that only catering companies or those who genuinely need to use nitrous oxide can buy them, this is not an easy thing to do. 

“Unless you’re capturing how much is being bought online, which is pretty difficult, looking at the remnants is probably the best way to do it because you know in those cases that it’s being used for the purpose that they’re not designed for i.e drug-taking,” he said. 

Sinn Féin TD Mark Ward for Dublin Mid-West agreed with the difficulty posed by this issue and said, “That’s the only way they can trace at the moment because there hasn’t been legislation brought in that can track the nitrous oxide coming into the country.”

In order to combat people buying whippets for non-legitimate reasons, Ward suggested having registration numbers connected with each box of whippets or shipping of them, as there needs to be “some sort of traceability”.

“If those canisters are found strewn around the streets, they could be traced back to the supplier that they were meant to come in from. Then there would be cumulative measures taken from that stage,” Ward said. 

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