Security allow 'legal high' laughing gas at festival

By Ed Davey
BBC News, London

  • Published
Media caption,

The Home Office recently urged festivals to crack down on laughing gas

Widespread consumption of laughing gas at one of the UK's top dance festivals has been exposed by a BBC investigation - as security stood by and did nothing.

The Home Office recently urged festivals to crack down on laughing gas. But reporters posing as partygoers found the drug being taken openly at South West Four on Clapham Common.

Some security guards watched the drug use - one calling it "not my problem".

Organisers say they treat legal highs on a par with illegal drugs.

Nitrous oxide, inhaled from a balloon, gives users a sense of euphoria that lasts a short time.

It is illegal to sell the gas to under 18s if you expect them to ingest it to become intoxicated - and people have died after taking it.

'Haven't a clue'

But at SW4, scores of revellers made no attempt to hide their consumption of the drug.

The BBC witnessed four teenage girls lying flat on their backs and inhaling from balloons as a security guard in uniform watched. He neither confiscated the drugs nor expelled them.

Asked whether laughing gas was therefore allowed in SW4, the guard said: "I haven't even got a clue mate. If they got through [entry searches], that's not my problem. I don't really care.

Image caption,
Four teenage girls lay flat on their backs consuming laughing gas from balloons as a security guard in a luminous jacket looked on - the guard said he "did not care" about the behaviour

"If a fight broke out I would call for backup, but if they're doing that I don't care."

Asked whether those taking nitrous oxide were meant to be evicted, he said: "I haven't been told that."

One of the girls said: "They haven't illegalised it yet. When they do, I'll hide it away, I'll do my balloon in my room."

One dealer was offering hits of laughing gas for £5. He said of the rush: "I don't even know how to describe it. It's good, innit. It's worth the risk."

Another said: "You get a headrush. You feel a bit trippy - nothing crazy, don't worry, don't be scared."

But he conceded: "People pass out. When they are breathing in and out with no oxygen they pass out.

"It's legal to do them - [but] a bit of a grey area with selling them."

The dealer said getting in was "tough", but added: "Once you're in, you're in."

Another party-goer said: "It's the best high you'll ever have, but it lasts a minute. It's so short, but it's amazing.

"It's bliss, then you're back."

Asked what he thought of festival security, his companion laughed and said: "Lax. No-one cares."

The BBC witnessed another security guard confronting a group which had been inhaling the gas - but again failing to throw them out or search them.

The guard said: "There's nothing I can do. All you can do is take it off them. It's a legal high."

The festival had stated it would have a "zero tolerance" attitude to drugs and those caught would be evicted regardless of whether the substance was a legal high.

By the end, hundreds of empty canisters of laughing gas and deflated balloons were strewn about the site.

Image caption,
Clear sachets containing traces of white powder could be found in WCs.

Minister for Crime Prevention Norman Baker said: "I wrote to festivals explicitly saying that this was a danger - but clearly this particular festival has not adhered to the advice.

"Anything which can be a danger to young people is the responsibility of the organisers and anybody who's working there."

Dr Owen Bowden-Jones, a psychiatrist specialising in club drugs, said: "As with all psychoactive drugs, it comes with harms attached.

"The nitrous displaces the air in your lungs and your body doesn't get enough oxygen. It also comes with effects such as nausea, vomiting, and occasionally convulsions.

"If you take too big a dose you starve your body of oxygen - you can collapse, your brain runs out of oxygen and you can die."

In addition to nitrous oxide, BBC reporters filmed revellers sniffing powder from their hands, swallowing pills and dabbing white powder from sachets.

'Serious matter'

Bags containing traces of white powder were left in toilets.

A spokesman for organisers Lock N Load Events said: "South West Four does not condone the use of any drugs and takes the matter very seriously.

"Our drugs policy is agreed by the police and Lambeth Council. Nitrous oxide or legal highs are treated on a par with illegal drugs."

Image caption,
Empty silver canisters of laughing gas and deflated balloons were strewn over the site

He went on: "All staff are briefed that any person found handling illegal drugs will be removed and the police informed.

"This information was included in briefings given to every member of security staff."

Organisers said there were 234 security staff with two sniffer dogs, while 439 people were refused entry or removed.

The spokesman added: "A variety of illegal and legal drugs were seized (including nitrous oxide).

"Nitrous oxide was a major issue at all of last weekend's events across London. It is crucially important we all work with the authorities to find a solution to this new problem."

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