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03-Mar-2016 11:32

A glamorous blonde in a little black dress tilts her head back to inhale nitrous oxide from a balloon in the middle of one of London’s trendiest streets.

The ‘high’ that ensues — an intense feeling of euphoria, apparently lasting up to a minute — has been likened to taking a ‘snort’ of cocaine.

It is a loophole that is being ruthlessly exploited, not just in Brick Lane, where the going rate for a ‘shot’ (that is, a balloon) is £3 or £5, but in towns and cities all over the country, where demand for ‘hippy crack’ seems to be increasing almost by the day.‘You know that if you come to the bars round here at the weekend that someone will be selling it and no one is gong to stop you doing it,’ says Brick Lane regular Phoebe Halmat, who works in public relations. Nitrous oxide first gained popularity as the middle-class ‘drug’ of choice at music festivals around 2010, the same year Prince Harry was reported to have inhaled it at a party.

This can cause serious nerve damage, leading to tingling and numbness in the fingers, toes and other extremities, and even difficulties with walking and pains in the affected areas.Nevertheless, it is widely available on the internet, as well as on the street.We counted six sellers — both male and female — patrolling the northern end of Brick Lane, between Cafe 101 and the Exit bar, with bags containing nitrous oxide canisters and other paraphernalia of their trade flung over their shoulders.It is against the law to sell the canisters (designed for use in the catering industry to dispense whipped cream) for ‘recreational’ purposes, but not to inflate balloons with the gas, then flog the balloons for a few pounds to anyone ill-advised enough to buy one.

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Medically known as ‘hypoxia’, this occurs when someone stops breathing, or breathes too shallowly to meet their oxygen requirements — usually because they are overly sleepy from the sedative effect of the nitrous oxide.

Regular users can also develop severe vitamin B deficiency, as the nitrous oxide blocks absorption of the vitamin.