Lagos, Nigeria — One evening in July 2020, Seun [last name withheld], wearing his favourite vintage shirt, a baseball cap and sneakers, boarded a minibus from his home in Mushin to celebrate his 28th birthday with friends at Eleko beach in Lagos.
Midway between the drinks at the party, one friend brought out some balloons from a bag and a blue canister to inflate them. Soon, the entire group was sniffing the balloons.
It was Seun’s first time doing laughing gas, also known as nitrous oxide. He felt unbelievably good and started laughing uncontrollably until the night turned on its head for him at about 10pm.
“I always believed that I could handle any substance so I kept rushing it because it was just air,” Seun, now 31, told Al Jazeera. “It made me smile a lot, then something switched and my head went off. I started running into the water and my friends had to come and carry me. They kept telling me to calm down but I was unable to do that.”
Nitrous oxide, an odourless, colourless gas used by doctors in medical and dental surgery is fast becoming the recreational substance of choice at Lagos nightclubs and parties. In pictures and videos on Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat, users now hold inflated balloons, which to the uninitiated, are just symbols of celebration, not intoxication.
One small business uses catchy hashtags on WhatsApp and Instagram to advertise its reach to parties across eight of Nigeria’s 36 states for deliveries of canisters up to 10kg; another brags about its strawberry and coconut flavours.
The calming effect from the balloons culminates in a euphoric feeling which gives users a fit of the giggles. But its effect is short lived and makes users sniff continuously. And although nitrous oxide seems harmless, experts say it could be consequential, even fatal for people with a history of seizures and respiratory problems.
Drug culture has existed under the radar in Africa’s most populous country for decades. But it has picked up in recent years, experts say. More than a third of youths are now involved in drug abuse, according to Nigeria’s National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA). Yet there are fewer than 250 registered psychiatrists in the country of 220 million people.
Laughing gas abuse is not just a Nigerian problem; usage has been reported in Denmark, the Netherlands and France, just as the United Kingdom has mulled a ban on it. In June, the NDLEA announced a crackdown on marketers and users of laughing gas in the country.
Stella Iwuagwu, executive director of the Centre for the Right to Health, a Lagos-based NGO campaigning against substance abuse in schools, blames the surge partly on a new moral code in which youngsters consider it cool to be filmed or appear in live videos using drugs and other banned substances.
But it is mostly due to frustration with the state of Nigeria, she said. Just three years ago, during Nigeria’s second recession in as many years, the naira exchanged at an average of 380 to $1; today, the naira has fallen to a third of that. A cost-of-living crisis has also hit Africa’s largest economy, as reforms by a new administration stutter and push the price of basic commodities above the reach of millions.
A series of policy missteps has also led to the exit of several foreign companies and the collapse of a number of local ones, keeping as many as a third of the population jobless.
“There is a lot of pain and frustration and people take drugs to quench the pain they are feeling,” Iwuagwu said. “Drug is their escape from hopelessness.”
West Africa – and particularly its most populous nation, Nigeria – is battling an opioid abuse crisis. Medicines such as tramadol, legally and legitimately prescribed by doctors for pain relief, are also being taken in life-threatening doses by millions in search of a fix or a release from poverty, unemployment and lack of opportunity.
An expensive habit
The morning after his birthday, Seun’s friends showed him clips of his misdemeanour. Their mocking singed his ego so bad that he asked for another balloon, to redeem himself.
“They were laughing at me that I spoilt my birthday by myself so I had to do it again to let them know my street credibility is intact,” he told Al Jazeera.
But laughing gas is expensive, and neither he nor any of his friends make enough money to cater for their needs. A canister costs about 100,000 naira ($124), equivalent to the monthly salary for Seun, a computer technician in Ikeja and breadwinner for his wife and daughter.
Still, once every two weeks, he would pool resources with three or four friends to get a canister from their supplier, Pablo, who makes deliveries with his car. They hole up in a room and play loud music, each holding a balloon. Sometimes, they’d fill up one balloon and pass it around to be inhaled.
While Seun also takes other substances like rohypnol (or rephnol), codeine and molly (MDMA or ecstasy), he says he prefers laughing gas because of the extreme escape it provides.
Unlike other drugs, laughing gas does not have its own colloquial name yet, mostly because it is expensive and has not become wildly popular among low-income users, who still get by on cheaper gateway drugs.
“All of these other drugs used to be very expensive but when they get more popular and become cheaper,” another user Abidemi [last name withheld] said, predicting a similar future for laughing gas.
In August, Arit Esangbedo was called to see a patient suffering from a cardiac arrest but she was unable to make an assessment until the patient’s friends confessed he had overdosed on nitrous oxide. It was her first experience dealing with a case of overdose on nitrous oxide.
“He was unconscious … when I examined him, I didn’t see the classic opioid overdose signs and symptoms,” she said. “It was when I started asking questions from his friends that I was told that he finished a canister of nitrous oxide alone.”
Esangbedo, a consultant psychiatrist at the addiction unit of the Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital, Yaba, managed to resuscitate him. Since then, there have been more cases, with four people brought in with seizures and in hallucinatory fits. But not everyone has been so lucky – in other cases, five youths died due to overdose.
“People fail to understand that it is not all substance they can use … but people who are looking for this high are ready to do anything and before you know what is happening, the person is gone,” she said.
Juwon Afolayan, a resident doctor at the anaesthesia department of the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, says clinical use of nitrous oxide is declining because of side-effects on patients such as disorientation and impaired memory. The substance, he adds, has become highly regulated in Nigeria because it can be used to make explosives.
Still, its suppliers have managed to find ways to distribute it.
The doctors say during clinical use, they administered oxygen to patients side by side with nitrous oxide to help wear off the effect of the latter. But recreational users of nitrous oxide do it solo and so feel the side-effects of the compound more, they added.
Iwuagwu said many users suffer from a lack of purpose and cannot find any reason to laugh which makes them resort to recreational drugs. Indeed, youth unemployment presently stands at 42.5 percent in Nigeria, where the median age is 17.2.
“Apart from education, we need to find hope for our young people. A lot of youths are out of school and doing nothing. They don’t have jobs, they don’t have hope,” she said.
Abidemi is one of Nigeria’s infamous Yahoo Boys, internet fraudsters who assume fake identities online to lure unsuspecting victims through romantic and business propositions. He says he started using laughing gas in nightclubs, but says it is now a work ritual.
“I have heard that it is dangerous to my health but you know we street boys, we just want to do and take our drugs,” the 30-year-old said. “I use it to maintain focus and stay awake because sometimes I feel sleepy at night, and to keep me active, I just take one of those balloons. I call it my happy hours.”
The euphoric feeling he gets from it keeps him motivated and hopeful of success as he dispatches scam messages to potential victims, or clients as he calls them, on messaging apps.
Every other week, he gets a new canister to enjoy with a friend, a fellow Yahoo Boy who comes to his house to work overnight. Now, as the NDLEA works to arrest users, he says he is becoming increasingly discreet.
Femi Babafemi, NDLEA’s director of media and advocacy says the agency has been trying to create awareness about the dangers of laughing gas abuse using traditional means and social media – including X (formerly called Twitter) Spaces.
So far, the NDLEA has intercepted three containers bearing more than 64,000kg and 8,000 canisters of nitrous oxide from China at the Apapa seaport to be delivered to a 30-year-old man in July. It says it has also made other arrests elsewhere in Imo and Port Harcourt.
“I believe we’ve been able to nip it in the bud with the arrest of [that] major importer in July and subsequent arrests of others between July and September … we made about 10 arrests in all,” Babafemi said.
Bursting the balloons
Songs extolling or describing substance abuse at length are common in pop music, and the use of laughing gas is reinforced by its popularity among celebrities whose lifestyles serve as a model to other Nigerian youths. For example, Seun said he enjoys the thrill of inhaling the same substance as Zinoleesky, his favourite artiste.
The NDLEA says it is working to dissuade more people from following that path. “[Our efforts] have driven back those who have the tendency to want to come online to promote or glorify it,” Babafemi said, referring to celebrities.
Experts say the drug agency has to collaborate with relevant organisations to help rein in this practice but also promote sports and other activities for youths to channel their free time into.
“Every organisation, church and mosque should educate people on the very dangerous consequences of consumption of nitrous oxide and there should be stiff penalties for those that are marketing it and bringing it into the country,” Iwuagwu said.
Esangbedo agrees, saying authorities have to work towards policy and prescription control of the substance before it gains more uptake.
In Mushin, Seun is unbothered by the increasing safety warnings. In Nigeria, expensive things are usually better and an indication of a status upgrade, he says.
“I just want to take it and feel all right, like the boys living on the [wealthier Lagos] Island, even though I came from the mainland,” he said. “We take other cheap things but when we cash out we want to take what rich men are also taking. We just want to make ourselves happy, that we too are not small.”
A growing number of young Nigerians are addicted to drugs, officials and police say, turning to cheap narcotics like codeine, tramadol, and other chemical substances in search of a high. The government this month have banned the production of codeine-based cough syrup and, in the wake of a recent BBC investigation, temporarily shuttered three pharmaceutical firms for allegedly failing to cooperate with federal inspectors.