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Father Of Dead Schoolie Calls For 'Nangs' To Be Regulated

Nitrous oxide should be regulated, warned the father of a Sydney teenager who fell to his death from a Gold Coast balcony after reportedly using the substance.

Hamish Bidgood, 18, was found dead next to the swimming pool at the Surf Regency Holiday Apartments in Surfers Paradise last month.

Just hours earlier, he had reportedly been drinking and ingesting nitrous oxide, otherwise known as 'nangs'. It is a legal and freely-available substance that has legitimate commercial uses, as well as being used as anaesthetic drug for sedation, pain relief and -- increasingly -- for recreational purposes.

Hamish Bidgood was a keen cricket player and beloved by his friends and family. Photo: Facebook.

"Hamish is not the first and won't be the last," his dad Des Bidgood told the Daily Telegraph.

"The gas canisters they inhale for fun should be banned; shop keepers, anyone who sells them on the internet, should be prosecuted if caught selling them."

However, experts warn banning or regulating nangs could cause more harm than good, and that peer-based education would be a better intervention method.

"We need to keep our perspective on this issue," Jarryd Bartle, a drug policy consultant and lecturer at RMIT University, told 10 daily.

"Nitrous oxide is a relatively 'low-risk' drug. The most serious concern is that it causes disorientation after use, which increases risk."

What are nangs and how freely are they available?
Discarded nitrous oxide canisters strewn on the floor at V Festival in Essex. Photo: AAP.

Nitrous oxide is a dissociative anaesthetic. You might know it better as laughing gas. It's commonly used to provide pain relief and sedate patients undergoing minor surgeries in hospitals and dentist surgeries.

Canisters of the gas are also freely sold in supermarkets and service stations around Australia. Commercially-speaking, they're used to whip cream, which is partly why they're so easily available. A box of 10 costs less than $10.

However, in recent years, there have been reports that use of nangs as a party drug is on the rise in Australia.

A 20-pack of nangs available via an online delivery service in Brisbane.

The 2016 Global Drug Survey found nitrous oxide is the seventh-most popular drug in the world (excluding alcohol, tobacco and caffeine), and a 2013 survey of 1,360 university students in New Zealand found 12 percent had used nangs in the past year.

It is difficult to measure the prevalence nangs in Australia, and whether use is on the rise. Bartle said the best metric for substance abuse is the annual National Drug Strategy Household Survey, which doesn't specifically measure use of nitrous oxide.

"We probably need to do more research about the prevalence of nitrous oxide use, as current data isn't specific," he said.

While it's legal to buy nitrous oxide in New South Wales, knowingly or recklessly supplying it in large quantities has been illegal since 2013.

NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman has indicated he'll be closely watching the findings of the inquest into Bidgood's death, and noted to the Daily Telegraph that existing provisions of the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act are capable of criminalising the supply.

Bartle said regulatory options could include rescheduling the drug at the Therapeutic Goods Administration to make it a pharmacy-only substance or outright criminalising it, but that neither option would work particularly well -- "unless we got rid of whipped cream."

What are the short- and long-term effects of nitrous oxide use?

Short term effects include dissociation of the mind from the body (in other words, floating), euphoria, numbness, sedation, uncoordination, confusion, laughter and sweating. In rare cases, it can cause visual hallucinations, which Bidgood was reportedly experiencing before his death.

Long-term effects of prolonged exposure include memory loss, incontinence, Vitamin B12 depletion, depression, a weakened immune system and psychosis.

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Moral panic over nangs could increase harms, warned Stephen Bright at Edith Cowan University and Nicole Lee at the National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University.

"Prohibiting drugs does not prevent people using them, and more harmful unregulated products can emerge," they wrote for The Conversation earlier this month.

"Alcohol Prohibition in the 1920s, for example, merely led to demand for illicit supply that had high alcohol content and contained impurities that caused blindness, paralysis and death.

"So banning nangs could cause more harm than it prevents. And it could lead to some very disgruntled whipped cream fans as well."

Contact the author: abrucesmith@networkten.com.au

Photo: Facebook / AAP.