breathing in and out of a balloon seems way too silly a way to catch a buzz, even if it is filled with nitrous oxide, aka laughing gas. The nitrous-doing companions I'm sitting with in this downtown living room look as ridiculous as I feel, fully focused on breathing and re-breathing. I feel like I'm in a scene from Old School.
Then it hits me.
Suddenly, all the sounds in the room melt into a constant drone. A thousand brilliant realizations flash into my head and in the same instant are forgotten and replaced by the next deep thoughts. I'm no longer part of my surroundings, but watching from some happier plane.
Then, as quickly as it came, the disassociated euphoria fades away, and my regular brain functions flood back in.
I look at my watch to discover that my moment of bliss was a mere 55 seconds from start to finish.
The recreational use of nitrous oxide is usually associated with bored bartenders and Phish concerts.
Its decline in use as a club drug over the past five years had led many to think the laughing gas fad had passed, but the continued sales of whipped cream canisters (or whippets), which can be used to dispense the gas, tell a different story.
Anna Tran, a cashier at an import store in Chinatown frequented by some users, says, "We usually know who they are because they come so regularly and will buy 15 boxes, and then come in a few days later and buy 15 more boxes. A restaurant does not use that much whipped cream."
So why is it that the 20-something grown-up crew is jumping on the nitrous bandwagon in droves, while the cyber-hippies have left it behind?
Call it hippie kids turning into adults, or maybe call it adults who have discovered the perfectly legal inebriation of one of the least harmful intoxicants available.
"Basically, almost anyone I hang out with will do it any chance they get," observes a 28-year-old software tester whose friends are part of the condo-dwelling, young professional, downtown Toronto crowd.
Whether or not the return of laughing gas ranks as a phenomenon is difficult to tell. But several 20-something interview subjects I talk to from T.O., Montreal, Chicago and San Fran - an accredited professional banker among them - confirm the popularity of "hippie crack," as nitrous oxide is sometimes called.
"Most of the people I know who do nitrous," says Natalie Tatyana, a 25-year-old company administrator and occasional user, "are working 'responsible adult' jobs."
According to Buzzed, a book based on drug research by scientists at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina, nitrous oxide is the safest of the inhalants and has very few health consequences "when administered properly."
Considering the authors probably mean "by a dentist in a clinical setting," that leaves a higher margin of risk for the recreational user, but not much.
"The real problem with recreational use is that you could become hypoxic (oxygen-starved) and stop breathing," says Jeff Erdan, a Montreal-based oral and maxillofacial surgeon. He cautions against inhaling nitrous oxide for long periods without a mix of oxygen, but he says the drug has few long-lasting effects otherwise.
When used regularly, it lowers the amount of vitamin B-12 in the body (causing poor circulation and, in extreme cases, fatigue), but this can be remedied by vitamin supplements.
More serious - and less likely - dangers are burning the tissues in the mouth and lungs by exposure to expanding gas, and exploding the lungs by inhaling the gas at high volume and pressure. Both of these circumstances involve the intake of nitrous directly from a tank. Most people, and everyone interviewed for this article, employs the whippet/balloon method, so oxygen is always mixed with the gas.
While its anesthetic and pain-relieving properties were discovered in the early 1700s, nitrous oxide wasn't commonly used in dentistry until the mid-1800s. Its first 150 years, coincidentally, were spent getting people high at carnivals.
The early 1900s found nitrous oxide back in the social scene, a favourite at upper-class British gentlemen's clubs and their related orgies. More recently it's been used in the rave scene and at the house parties of those looking for a quick, intense and safe high.
These days it's getting harder to find dentists who use nitrous oxide in their practice, usually because they feel it doesn't sufficiently sedate their patients. They prefer demerol for surgeries and nothing at all for cleanings.
A tip for those looking to get a free fix with their next cleaning: University of Toronto dentists are much more likely to use it than those who graduated from McGill.
One place where nitrous oxide can still be found in a clinical setting is in the area of addiction treatment.
On the theory that laughing gas affects the same receptors in the brain as morphine and heroin, it's sometimes used to combat the withdrawal symptoms of opiate and alcohol addiction.
With such a colourful history, it may seem strange that nitrous oxide hasn't been more prominent in the arts or the media.
A second viewing of Blue Velvet, Lethal Weapon 4 and The Little Shop Of Horrors will reveal nitrous follies, not to mention Beck's song Fume (the b-side of 1994's hit Loser).
A more esoteric point of reference is the cult animated feature Wave Twisters, whose hero, the Dental Commander, takes his own clinical nitrous to see visions.
Now that you've been let in on the secret, are you interested?