As whippet fad spreads, government moves to restrict sale of nitrous oxideKorea is known for its hard-line stance against illegal drugs yet its liberal attitude toward the use of other drugs like alcohol, tobacco and caffeine. But now, many are taking advantage of a legal grey area in order to get high.
A 34-year-old female office worker surnamed Kim often hangs out with her friends at a jazz bar in Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul, a popular neighborhood among young professionals.
Kim first tried a so-called “happy balloon” earlier this year with her friends at the bar, using a balloon and a small steel cylinder filled with nitrous oxide, also known as a whipped-cream charger or whippet for short. One balloon costs about 5,000 won ($4.45) and the high last for about 20 to 30 seconds.
“At first I was quite scared, but my friends were saying it is legal and that I won’t get addicted,” Kim said. “It was an interesting experience, as we were doing balloons while drinking. I also think it’s not bad thing since no one gets violent from it, as with alcohol, and the high only last for a short period of time.”
In Korea, “happy balloons” became popular in lounges and bars in regions like Cheongdam, Hongdae and Itaewon earlier this year. Some bars are even hosting special parties and events to introduce the practice of doing whippets. In some neighborhoods, like Hongdae, whippet dealers can be seen selling them on the street.
But after various accidents were reported in the country, the Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Food and Drug Safety announced Wednesday that it will categorize nitrous oxide as a hallucinogenic substance.
In April, police in Suwon found a man in his 20s who apparently died from doing too many whippets. Police found 104 canisters of nitrous oxide, of which 17 had been used.
“We first thought he died from suffocation since he was wearing a plastic bag on his head, but we are thinking it was due to an overdose of nitrous oxide,” the police authority said Monday after hearing the cause of death from the National Forensic Service. “We are not sure if this was the first death due to nitrous oxide, but we think there needs to be strong regulation since the substance is traded easily online at cheap prices.”
Nitrous oxide, which can be habit-forming, is also a neurotoxin when inhaled in the form of whippets, since whipped-cream cylinders do not contain oxygen, which would make the cream go bad. As a result, doing whippets deprives the brain of oxygen.
According to the environment and drug ministries, they will revise regulations to categorize the substance this month and the new rule will ban the non-medical use of nitrous oxide. Great Britain also banned nitrous oxide for personal use after 17 people died from inhaling it between 2006 and 2012.
“We will categorize nitrous oxide as a hallucinogenic substance and will toughen safety measures to prevent its abuse,” said Chung Hwan-jin, a director at the Environment Ministry. “This is to protect people from misusing nitrous oxide to get high.”
The ministries will allow the substance to be used for professional purposes, such as making anesthetics or whipped cream, but it will no longer be freely sold.
When this new law goes into effect, violators may face up to 3 years in jail or be fined up to 50 million won.
“We will continue to work on solving the issue, which is spreading at a fast rate,” said Chung. “We urge people not to inhale this substance, as it can cause hypoxia and might lead to death.”
BY KIM YOUNG-NAM [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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