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“Hippie Crack” Might Fight Depression

Nitrous oxide, the newest party drug to go therapeutic, is a laugh and a half.

Oh, nitrous. At a party in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, I once saw two guys fight over the last of the laughing gas, a pair of grown men rolling around on the floor, each trying to wrestle a yellow balloon from the other’s grasp. Their tussle was a blur of beards and denim, strangely vicious for the otherwise good vibes of the evening and yet restrained—if it got too rough the precious gas could seep out, or even worse the balloon could pop. Not to say that huffing nitrous makes you a whacked out maniac—it can actually be really fun, and for all I know, those guys, (who had gone through most of a tank on their own), were whacked out maniacs to start with. It’s a weird drug.

But it also makes you laugh. The journal Biological Psychiatry published a study yesterday asserting that nitrous oxide administered at low levels was effective in combatting treatment-resistant depression. It was just a proof-of-concept trial and the test group was small, but results seemed encouraging. The L.A. Times reports that like ketamine, another party drug that’s recently been enlisted as potentially therapeutic, nitrous could serve as a “rescue drug,” a fast-acting antidepressant that would fill the up-to-six-week gap it takes traditional antidepressants to kick in. In cases of extreme depression, this kind intervention could literally be a lifesaver.

The study’s results, promising as they were, weren’t all giggles and sunshine: “Three depression patients reports nausea and vomiting, two complained of headache, and three reported anxiety or panic attacks after the nitrous dose,” writes the Times. And while my earlier anecdotal tale of nitrous abuse and hipster combat has nothing to do with how the gas would be administered as an antidepressant, and I’m a general believer in recreational drug use, it has always seemed odd to me that something that makes one feel so light and pleasant could have such a peculiar dark side: Indeed, demented cult leader (and possible biological terrorist) Osho would huff laughing gas all day, and this amazing story from the Village Voice a few years ago takes readers into the scummy world of the festival circuit’s “Nitrous Mafia,” who control the laughing gas game with an iron fist. In the piece, a touring musician tells the Voice: “They don't call it ‘hippie crack’ for nothing.”

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