- When Vito Oliveri, 34, and Emily Shuford, 30, first used nitrous oxide, they immediately felt euphoric.
- Eight years after first taking the drug, Oliveri got pins and needles and woke up unable to walk.
- Experts are concerned about the potential harm from nitrous oxide amid the rise of supersized jerry cans.
When Vito Oliveri first tried laughing gas in his twenties, he didn’t expect a legal drug that would temporarily paralyze him and his fiancée years later, leaving them unable to walk their four dogs.
Just early last year, Oliveri, 34, who lives in Portland, Oregon, near some of the top ski resorts in the US, often went skiing or taking trips to the lakes with his fiancé, Emily Shuford, 30.
“Normally I would be on the mountain on a Monday like today, but I just can’t. Emily uses a cane and I probably can’t walk a mile. We’ve been confined to the house, probably since April last year,” she shared. Oliveri told Insider in February.
Nitrous oxide, also known as “laughing gas” or “hippie crack”, is used as a pain reliever during childbirth and for whipped cream in the catering industry. But it has become increasingly popular as a recreational drug in recent years in the US, Australia and Europe, where people inhale it for a relaxed, giggly euphoria that lasts an average of one to two minutes.
According to a recent European Drugs Monitoring Centre, experts are increasingly concerned about nitrous oxide and its potential harm, particularly amid the rise of super-sized stainless steel jerry cans, which came onto the market around 2017 to “intentionally target” recreational users and Drug Addiction Report.
“Maybe once every five or six years I see a patient who had a stroke from cocaine use. Still, I see this every week in my ward. So from my point of view, this is actually a bigger problem,” Dr. David Nicholl, a neurologist consultant at Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust, UK, told Sky News on March 1.
When Oliveri first took the drug, he attached a lipstick-sized silver capsule containing 0.2 ounces of nitrous oxide to a whipped cream dispenser and filled a balloon from which he inhaled the gas. He immediately liked it.
Oliveri said that while the “little crackers” can taste bad, the larger cylinders are more convenient, tasteless and produce stronger euphoric effects.
Nitrous oxide can inactivate vitamin B12 in the body
Nitric oxide can paralyze people because it destroys nerve cells in the spinal cord by inactivating vitamin B12, which is essential for preserving the lining of the nerves, Alistair Noyce, a neurologist who works at a London hospital in the UK, told Insider.
That nerve damage can also cause tingling and numbness of the affected body part, with the severity of symptoms depending on how extensive the damage is, said Noyce, who is also a professor in the Preventive Neurology Unit at the Wilson Institute of Population Health. Queen Mary, University of London.
People can also lose their balance because signals that tell the brain where body parts are aren’t transmitted properly, Noyce.
Oliveri, who has trouble balancing from the nerve damage caused by laughing gas, falls over when his dogs jump on him or pull on their leashes. He now sends two of his dogs – a chocolate Labrador and a German Shepherd – to the doggie daycare once a week so they get plenty of exercise.
Oliveri shared his story to raise awareness of the dangers of using nitrous oxide.
“There’s a warning on alcohol bottles, there’s a warning on cigarettes telling you what’s going to happen, but there’s nothing for nitrous oxide,” Oliveri said.
A doctor has seen people in their teens and twenties disabled by laughing gas
It is legal to possess nitrous oxide in most countries, but some have criminalized supplying it for recreational purposes.
The Netherlands recently banned its possession and sale due to concerns about nerve damage and road accidents from people driving high, and the UK, where it is illegal to sell but not possess, could soon follow suit.
In the US, the state of New York banned its sale in 2021, partly because of the risk of abuse, and in California recreational use is a felony.
While it’s rare for people who take the drug infrequently or in small amounts to develop nerve damage, Noyce said he’s seen patients experience it after a single use, but he doesn’t know if those cases happened randomly or if they were for one or the other. other reason possible.
Noyce said he had seen people in the hospital, mostly in their teens and twenties, who were “deeply disabled” from using large amounts of nitrous oxide, who had to use a walker or wheelchair, and others who were incontinent or unable to walk. get an erection.
Noyce said there’s no agreed-upon definition of “heavy use,” but one ballpark figure uses more than 10 to 15 jerry cans more than once a week, citing his own research, while the Dutch Poison Control Center rates it at inhaling 50 or more balloons in one session.
Users who develop symptoms such as numbness, unexplained incontinence or problems with erections should discontinue use, seek help immediately and tell a doctor they are taking the drug, because prompt treatment with vitamin B12 injections is “critical,” Noyce said.
“Some recover, others don’t,” he said.
Super large cylinders are easier to use, though more dangerous
Oliveri first tried the drug when he was 26 years old, partying with co-workers on a cannabis plantation in California, before meeting Shuford.
He took it at parties for about a year and stopped taking it until he moved to Portland in 2020 and discovered the super-sized cylinders that hold 20 pounds of nitrous oxide—equivalent to 1,600 0.2-ounce capsules—and cost about $400 each.
Because the cylinders were not available in his area, he used 400 to 500 jerry cans a day for about a year to achieve the same euphoric effects.
“Once they run out, you think, ah, I need more,” he said.
Noyce believes the super-sized cylinders are more dangerous than jerry cans, in part because it’s easier to carry large quantities. People turn a valve on the large cylinders to fill a balloon, rather than screwing a small canister onto the end of a dispenser and twisting it awkwardly each time.
Laughing gas can cause psychological dependence
Shuford first tried a small canister of nitrous oxide during the couple’s first Christmas together, after they met in a cannabis dispensary in 2018, and she immediately liked it.
However, it wasn’t until June 2021, when a Portland company started selling super-sized cylinders daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., that they started using the drug heavily and couldn’t stop for weeks.
The couple bought cylinders to satisfy their cravings, even as they ended up in the hospital, unable to walk due to nerve damage.
According to Noyce, nitrous oxide is not physically addictive in the same way that drugs such as heroin are, but can produce “an element of psychological dependence”.
“Patients agree that if they don’t take it, they crave it, they’re irritable, they’re constantly chasing the same original feeling they got and that leads to higher and higher amounts,” he said.
Oliveri said the pair shared about two super-sized cylinders a day for weeks, only pausing when they vomited or had flu-like symptoms.
“The high only lasts 10 to 15 seconds and then your mind just wants to do it again,” Oliveri said.
In addition to health problems, it also brought them financial problems. Oliveri said the couple could spend up to $1,300 a day.
In six or seven months, Oliveri said they spent $20,000 on a credit card and another $50,000 in cash.
Their savings are gone, Oliveri now works for a delivery service.
One day Oliveri woke up unable to walk
Oliveri first noticed something was wrong in April 2022 when his legs started shaking uncontrollably and he struggled to stand still. He didn’t know this was a sign of nerve damage from nitrous oxide.
A month later, the pair used two super-sized cylinders for a flight to Mexico, and Oliveri’s legs became so shaky that he had to rent an automatic chair to move around the resort.
In June 2022, the pins and needles were “extreme”. One day he woke up numb from his navel down and was unable to walk.
He was with Shuford but had to call a friend to carry him to the car and take him to the local hospital, where doctors said laughing gas had damaged his nerves and treated him with vitamin B12 injections.
Oliveri said it took him eight weeks to move around the house with a cane, and then another five weeks to walk without a cane, though his ankles still “don’t quite work” so, like his other friends who using the drug, he “hobbles”.
Oliveri said it was his supplier who first told him the drug could inactivate B12, after noticing Oliveri’s “wiggling.”
“Rapid treatment with B12 injections probably offers the best chance of recovery, but will not protect you if you continue to use,” Noyce said. Some people try to supplement with vitamin B12 tablets to prevent damage, but according to Noyce, that doesn’t work.
The pair tried to stop using the drug after Oliveri came home, but were unsuccessful. Five months later in November 2022, Shuford was hospitalized for 17 days as she was unable to walk. It took six weeks of physical therapy before she could walk without a cane.
The pair tried to quit again, and they did for a month, but became stressed or bored and began to crave the euphoric effects.
Speaking after a recent three-day binge, Oliveri said he was “quite upset” about taking the drug because it’s hard for him to walk again. The couple can’t fully bend their ankles up or down, or move their toes properly, but they do exercises to improve that.
As of March 16, the couple had not touched the drug for several weeks.
“We’re going to try to really be ready now, we can walk now, so we have to stay ahead of it,” he said.
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