Nitrous oxide perfectly represents today's uncommitted generation | Oscar Rickett

Laughing gas is less 'hippy crack', and more just a cheap, quick fix. It's a YouTube of a drug, a BuzzFeed post from a canister

The hippies took acid, the punks had speed, rave culture was founded on ecstasy and Britpop ran on cocaine. So what do today's kids have? Nitrous oxide: also known as laughing gas, "hippy crack" or, in my mind, "balloons". According to the Home Office – generally found in the corner of a hip teen drug party surrounded by a crowd of hangers-on – it's now the second most popular drug among young people.

If the zeitgeist drugs of the past were characterised by intense emotions that require hours of commitment, nitrous oxide is characterised by intense emotions that require about a minute of commitment. It's a fumble in an alleyway, not a marriage. When someone offers it to me, my response is normally, "why not?". After all, it's cheap, pretty fun and in a couple of minutes I'll be back to feeling normal. It's sociable because you don't disappear into your own world for hours, and it feels safe because dentists use it every day and people who are trained to use drills inside people's mouths seem eminently trustworthy.

The thing about "hippy crack" is that it's not like crack and it's not like a hippy drug. That generation's drug of choice – acid – was fitting of a movement possessed by a kind of technicolour idealism that required time and space. In a world yet to be dominated by the incessant rush of global capital, in which education and housing were cheap, and long-haired dreams were there to be dreamed, acid, with its mystical feeling and 8-to-12-hour life-span, was perfect.

Nitrous oxide, consumed in small quantities via balloons, would seem to be totally unmystical and, given the two-minute life-span, isn't conducive to the dreaming of big dreams. You can't see Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young getting too excited at the prospect of ploughing through a canister or two at the V Festival. If the hippy movement felt, pre-Altamont, like it was symbolised by long summer days, our world feels fractured, insecure and vaguely nihilistic, which means that the "why not" quick fix of nitrous oxide suits it well.

While balloons don't conform to the hippy-drug archetype, they also don't fit the inner-city despair we associate with heroin or crack. Crack has a much stronger effect on the body than nitrous oxide, and so perhaps that is where the "hippy crack" term has some legitimacy: you could say that balloons are like crack for soft-hearted drug takers.

In a depressed economy, it would be forgivable to imagine that the latest drug craze would be something that envelopes you, blocks out pain and takes the empty experience of unemployment away: something all-consuming. But the popularity of balloons suggests a generation that is anxious to succeed, a generation afraid to commit too strongly to something that might ruin them and a generation that doesn't have enough money to indulge in more expensive drugs. With balloons, you limit your fun but you also limit your expenditure. It apes our current false economy because you get very little bang for your buck.

Being a little older than the 16-24 demographic that loves balloons, I find myself vaguely scornful of their drug of choice. Laughing gas doesn't seem like a real drug to me, despite a long history of its use. The lack of commitment seems like a problem. It's a quick fix, a YouTube clip of a drug, a BuzzFeed post that comes out of a canister.

Saying this only makes me like any other old person bemoaning the lack of "realness" in younger generations. My father was full of stories about shooting bows and arrows naked while high on acid; the silent implication being that I would never do anything quite as mind-blowing. But I did and maybe the teenagers with their balloons will do too. They just might need quite a lot of canisters to do it.


Oscar Rickett

The GuardianTramp

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