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First comes a sharp hiss like the cap of a soft drink bottle opening followed by an urgent, almost desperate, inhaling sound.
Within seconds, the rhythmic unscrewing of the charge holder begins and the chrome nitrous oxide cannister hits the floor with a metallic clang.
Other chrome charges rustle together in a box as a new one is selected, jammed into place, and the holder screwed on to begin again.
Hiss, whoosh, unscrew, clang, reload.
Robert Davis has his method of chain-inhaling the bulbs of laughing gas, or ‘nangs’, with a whipped cream dispenser to such precision that the next one is down his windpipe in well under a minute.
Robert Davis, 31, was a nang addict for two years, regularly inhaling up to 1,200 nitrous oxide cannisters a session after buying them from late-night delivery services
Any delay and the fleeting high will begin to wear off, and the harsh realities of life, and his surroundings, will start rushing in.
Robert, 31, would go through at least 1,200 nangs over the course of a few hours for the cost of about $600, but at his worst it was double.
But the Melbourne man is not your usual nang user, and certainly not someone you would expect to be addicted to a teenage party drug.
Robert has a degree in astrophysics, an IQ in the top few per cent of Australians, and makes about $160,000 a year as an app developer.
His tiny flat in Melbourne is littered with hundreds, if not thousands, of used nang charges – a confronting sign of his crippling addiction.
Some are piled in a large cardboard box sent by a late-night courier, but most are spread out across the room.
‘I’d try to put them in a box as I do try to keep the room tidy but as I got more high from lack of oxygen, I’d stop giving a s**t,’ he told Daily Mail Australia.
Mr Davis (pictured recently) finally kicked the habit last year and is rebuilding his life and is back to being his old self
Robert’s nang use began in early 2019 when some friends invited him over for a small gathering later revealed to be what they called the ‘nang Olympics’
Mixed in with the illicit debris are dirty clothes and layers of cat hair clumped on the carpet and furniture after weeks of being ignored.
Robert speaks quickly and often incoherently, babbling and lurching between topics with the speed of a hyperactive child but none of the charm.
One minute he’s giving a garbled but still technically correct scientific explanation, followed by a bizarre, unrelated theory before suddenly teetering on the verge of tears – depressed and horrified by his circumstances.
Yet on he goes sucking down the chemicals, his hands guided by the muscle memory of close to 100,000 nangs as his brain becomes increasingly oxygen deprived. Until finally there are none left.
If this scene seems both horrifying and depressing, imagine what it must be like for those of us who knew him when he was healthy and well.
Robert’s addiction has cost him his fiancée, several jobs, tens of thousands of dollars, and all but a handful of his friends.
Now months sober and working a job he loves, he is paying off his huge drug debts and rebuilding his life piece by piece – and warning others not to follow his path.
His tiny flat in Melbourne was littered with hundreds, if not thousands, of used nang charges, as a shocking sign of his crippling addiction
Robert first tried nangs at a party when he was at university in Perth, sucking in one balloon’s worth and ‘feeling like his head was in space’.
A decade later in 2019, some friends invited him over for a small gathering that was later revealed to be what they called the ‘nang Olympics’.
‘I thought “yeah I remember nangs, they were fun. I’d be up for doing that again”,’ he recalled.
Stupid, but relatively harmless fun, a childish joke for a buck a balloon. But it clicked something inside him.
‘The turning point for me came when we ran out of nangs and they said “we can just get more”. I didn’t realise they were so easy to get,’ Robert said.
Online nang products have names like like ‘InfusionMaxElite’ and ‘Miami Magic’ and came in a variety of flavours with discount codes, bulk savings, and free delivery on orders over $100
On-demand nang deliveries have increased in popularity in recent years in the same way as the proliferation of other convenient services such as UberEats, Deliveroo, and Jimmy Brings.
Customers order however many nangs they want online and a dealer on a bike or in a car shows up, pings when they’re outside, and hands over a bag or a box.
The entire process takes less time than ordering a pizza and is just as easy and available late at night when a user’s willpower is at its worst.
A month or two after the gathering, Robert was still thinking about the experience and wondered if he could get some nangs at home.
‘I was struggling with how fast my life was changing as the wedding was coming up and we were planning on having children as soon as possible afterwards – and I wasn’t ready to be a father,’ he said.
‘I tried small amounts at first, every now and then. Then it became at least once a week, buying packs of 50, and before long I was doing 200 or 300 in one sitting.’
Robert (pictured before his addiction) had his method of chain-inhaling nitrous oxide bulbs with a whipped cream dispenser down to such precision that the next one is down his windpipe in well under a minute
Robert soon realised he could buy nangs in bulk boxes of 600 so they cost as little as 50c each instead of $1 each for the 50-pack cartons.
By June 2019, he realised he was addicted and tried to detox with a weekend away at a hot springs retreat on the Mornington Peninsula.
He came back feeling refreshed and ready to stay sober, but days later had a huge fight with his fiancée and fell off the wagon.
She was unhappily aware that he was using nangs, but he was able to hide the extent of his problem – until towards the end of 2019.
As Robert’s addiction intensified, he became less careful and one day his fiancée came home to find him in the middle of a big session.
She told Robert it was the last straw and he needed to go to rehab. He agreed and spent his birthday cut off from the world as his mental health went downhill.
Robert claimed the day he was due to get out of rehab, his fiancée told staff at the facility that she had opera tickets with her mother and requested they keep him an extra day because she didn’t trust him to be home alone.
That was also the point she decided to call off the wedding.
‘I got out of the psych ward ready to stay clean, and a week later my whole future fell apart,’ Robert recalled, still with great anguish.
He wouldn’t have been able to afford the fancy $150-per-person wedding his fiancée wanted anyway as he’d blown too much of his savings on drugs.
Robert was engaged to be married in January 2020, but his fiancée left him due to his habit
Forced to move out of their shared home and into a tiny, depressing apartment in inner Melbourne, Robert no longer felt he had reason to hold back.
Every payday he would blow as much of his weekly salary as he could on hundreds of nangs, usually a box of 600 that he would order a refill of when it was almost empty.
On his worst night he went through 2,400 nangs while watching the entire Monty Python’s Flying Circus series.
When his salary wasn’t enough to finance his habit, Robert opened several credit cards and took out thousands in payday loans.
Robert estimated his daily take home pay was $2,000 to $2,500 a week, and unless it was rent week he’d spend only $300 to $400 of it on things that weren’t nangs.
He was earning $160,000 a year and still living week-to-week.
‘Anything I did to try to keep money from myself I found a way around,’ he said, resorting to buying Coles gift vouchers so he would be forced to buy food.
‘When I couldn’t afford to do nangs, I was thinking about the next time I could afford it. All the time, at work, when I was out. I couldn’t relax.
‘I was addicted to the feeling of being stupid. My brain was constantly thinking about stuff – worrying about everything and it wouldn’t slow down. The nangs helped me switch off.
‘Inhaling it used to feel like going to space, but as I used it more it just became a numbing sensation, it stopped me from caring about the world. Sometimes I got fixated on things or had paranoid delusions and wild fantasies.’
Mixed in with the illicit debris were dirty clothes and layers of cat hair clumped on the carpet and furniture after weeks of being ignored
I flew down to Melbourne in January 2020 to visit, having already bought the tickets for Robert’s wedding and figuring he shouldn’t be alone that day.
The difference from the last time I’d seen him was jarring. He’d always been an eccentric guy, but in a way that everyone loved and gravitated towards.
Robert’s parties, both in Perth and Melbourne, were legendary bashes that drew huge crowds and raged into the night. Now he had no one.
I dragged him out of his depressing flat for maybe two beers, where he openly wept at what should have been the happiest day of his life being spent nearly alone.
But other than those couple of hours, all he wanted to do – despite my pleading – was pickle his brain into oblivion with hundreds of nangs.
Within weeks, his tiny flat became even smaller when the Covid pandemic plunged Australia into lockdown, with Melbourne enduring five more months as a second outbreak gripped Victoria.
‘Part of why I got so addicted was that during Covid lockdown I had no company, my friends didn’t want anything to do with me because I was a drug addict, and my family were on the other side of the country,’ Robert said.
Most company names refer to whipped cream, but on promising 15-60 minute delivery times 24/7 called itself Nangaroo – a play on Deliveroo
The company even had staff attend a festival in uniform to promote its products
‘So the only company I had were my cats, and anyone who was bringing me drugs.’
Robert said he pushed people away with inappropriate jokes and bizarre ramblings while he was high on nangs.
‘I stopped caring about how rude it was to call someone at 2am and a lot of people got weird voicemails or texts from me, or even on work Slack channels,’ he said.
‘I said horrible things and the worst part is I didn’t remember saying them when people wanted me to apologise.
‘I felt like everyone hated me, and it was easier just to assume the whole world did. Part of me thought that was a good thing, because if I took my own life it would be easier on everyone.
‘The only thing stopping me from killing myself is I promised my mum I wouldn’t [before she died].
‘Not having any support or people to talk to makes it almost impossible to stay sober, everything is so much harder when you’re doing it alone. Maybe I would have been able to if everyone hadn’t given up on me.’
Robert lost one job after he showed up at work high and took off all his clothes except a hat
What are nangs?
Nangs are nitrous oxide canisters and they can be found in convenience stores for as little as 10 for $10, or in much bigger quantities online.
Typically the drug is used for sedation and pain relief in dentistry but more people are using it to get high.
Users experience symptoms such as dizziness, euphoria, uncontrollable laughter, and giddiness.
However, people can also die from using nangs as too much can cause a heart attack.
Long-term use can cause depression or psychosis.
‘There is no evidence demonstrating that mixing nitrous oxide with other substances increases health risks,’ the Alcohol and Drug Foundation’s website stated.
‘However, it is possible that combining the gas with stimulants and other drugs places additional pressure on the heart, increases blood pressure and may disrupt heart rate.’
Source: Alcohol and Drug Foundation
Robert’s addiction also threatened to destroy his professional life with colleagues horrified by his behaviour.
He lost one job after he showed up at work high and took off all his clothes except a hat.
But he was too qualified to stay unemployed and regardless of how many jobs he managed to lose, he kept getting hired for high-paying roles within a couple of weeks of being sacked.
Most casual nang users inhale them through balloons filled with the gas, in much the same way as Victorian-era ‘laughing gas parties’, and the short high is seen as a benefit rather than a drawback.
But more committed users, like Robert, use whipped cream dispensers to get the nitrous oxide out of the cannister and depressurise it enough to be inhaled.
‘Buying my first whipped cream dispenser for about $80 was like buying my first bong, it was a big step,’ he said.
‘By 2020, I’d go through a lot of them because they’re only designed to do a certain number, and I learned how to repair them with parts from another broken one.’
However, as the gas is stored in the bulbs at -40C, repeated use makes the dispenser cold enough to be a hazard by itself.
‘My hands would be blistered from frostbite so I’d put one next to a heater while I used another, and swap them when it got too cold,’ he said.
Mr Davis said one of the worst moments of his addiction was when he dug through stinking rubbish for a broken dispenser he’d thrown away while high, and cleaned and repaired it when the other one stopped working.
‘It was an absolutely disgusting thing to do and I felt like a piece of s**t but I was so desperate to get high,’ he said.
As nang use skyrockets, from 10 to 20 per cent between 2015 and 2021 according to the Global Drug Survey, so too have unscrupulous sellers trying to make a buck.
Robert pictured in the middle of his nang addiction just before his fiancée broke of their engagement
It is not illegal to sell, possess, or abuse nitrous oxide cannisters. It only becomes a criminal matter if they are sold to someone who intends to misuse them, which is nearly impossible to police.
People can buy them online as ‘kitchen supplies’ with a credit card or PayPal, or cash on arrival.
‘The people who sell nangs don’t consider themselves drug dealers,’ Robert said, having got to know a few who dropped off his regular orders.
Often they were recent immigrants or owners of legitimate small businesses making a bit of extra cash on the side, dropping off the nangs while on food delivery runs.
Robert was always anxious while waiting for the nangs to arrive, so he often used services with a tracker, just like food delivery, to see far away it was.
‘The only exercise I got during lockdown was carrying those boxes upstairs to my apartment – fully loaded they weigh about 20kg,’ he said.
Nangs are now the seventh-most popular drug in Australia with almost a quarter of Australians aged 18 to 29 using them last year.
The Ecstasy and Related Drugs Reporting System, which asks MDMA and psychostimulant users about their drug use, found the percentage of those who also used nangs doubled from about a quarter in 2015 to 54 per cent in 2020.
Use was on average only once a month, but the median session was five to 10 cannisters and up to a median of 25 for a bigger session.
Two deaths in Australia have been linked to nang use since 2010: Aaron McDonald, 22, who died of asphyxiation, and a schoolie who fell off a balcony on the Gold Coast.
Nitrous oxide abuse appears harmless to its young users, but carries serious health risks that dramatically escalate with heavy or prolonged use.
Repeatedly inhaling the gas can disable vitamin B12 in the body, leading to a deficiency that affects nerves.
How nang dealers deliver death to your door with impunity
Sellers openly advertise on social media, even paying for promoted Facebook and Instagram spots, appearing to be catering to Australians baking at home.
One ad encouraged buyers to make a cake for Fathers Day and ‘to make everything perfect, trust only the reliable store of whipped cream chargers’.
Others had names like ‘InfusionMaxElite’ and ‘Miami Magic’ and came in a variety of flavours with discount codes, bulk savings, and free delivery on orders over $100.
One ad encouraged buyers to make a cake for Fathers Day and ‘to make everything perfect, trust only the reliable store of whipped cream chargers’
However, such sellers offer huge bulk orders when just one would be required for legitimate home baking – and certainly not need delivering at 1am.
Most company names refer to whipped cream, but one promising 15-60 minute delivery times 24/7 called itself Nangaroo – a play on Deliveroo.
Few asked for proof buyers were over 18 – even legitimate sales of nitrous oxide are illegal for children – and some offered to deliver ‘after school’.
Melbourne dealer Nick, who drives a Mercedes with number plates reading ‘I love nangs’, claims to be Australia’s ‘King of Nangs’ and owns numerous online companies that sell nitrous oxide cannisters.
Melbourne dealer Nick, who drives a Mercedes with number plates reading ‘I love nangs’, claims to be Australia’s ‘King of Nangs’
He delivers nangs to revellers and said he could make up to $35,000 in a single weekend, with athletes, lawyers, and university students among his clients – some racking up bills of more than $25,000.
‘If I have any suspicion someone is going to misuse it, I’ll just ban them,’ he claimed to A Current Affair.
‘If they chose to use it in a party way, sure you know what, I don’t care.’
Darren Roberts, medical director of the Poisons Information Centre at Westmead Children’s Hospital in Sydney, said serious cases were dramatically increasing.
‘I don’t think regular nitrous oxide use is ever benign,’ he told Daily Mail Australia.
Dr Roberts said serious symptoms came in two broad groups that often gave nang users lifelong disabilities that treatment couldn’t completely repair.
Damage to the nerves that control muscles gradually reduced function, starting with tingling and numbness that heavy users often ignored.
They also had balance and coordination issues and reduced muscle strength.
‘Users can’t use their hands properly, they’re falling over, many are bed or chair-bound and trying to drag themselves around the floor – this not an uncommon feature of heavy daily use,’ Dr Roberts said.
This box holds 600 nitrous oxide cannisters, costs just $300, and is delivered to your door faster than a pizza
Others had problems with nerves controlling their bladder and bowels, sometimes to the point where they don’t work at all.
Heavy users can also exhibit signs of advanced dementia.
‘Some people come in with psychosis and are seeing or hearing things that aren’t there,’ Dr Roberts said.
‘Others have an inability to concentrate and feel depressed, and on scans we can see shrinking of the brain to look like one of a much older person.
‘Often this is largely irreversible, some people have improvement after extensive rehabilitation but few get back to where they were before. We have some treatments but they have to be given early.’
In extreme cases, users were so disabled by a cycle of nang abuse that they were unable to care for themselves.
They ended up malnourished or with severe vitamin deficiencies, and could suffer from pressure sores that became ulcers due to reduced mobility. If the ulcers got infected, the patients may require intensive care, or even die.
Robert has experienced many of these symptoms, the most obvious being constant pins and needles in his feet and toes since the end of 2019 that he still feels today.
Even though his two-dispenser strategy protected his hands from frostbite, sometimes it misfired and froze the inside of his throat.
Robert is unsure of the potential damage to his brain from oxygen deprivation, but at one point last year he was hearing the voices of David Tennant and Jodi Whittaker from the Doctor Who series in his head.
However, he said he was still able to do his job at the same level as before his addiction started.
Dr Roberts said the proliferation of nang delivery services appeared to be helping fuel the spike in serious cases due to easy, around the clock access.
‘These services add to the problem because we know a lot of people misuse nitrous oxide because they’re lonely or depressed and easy access to the substance makes them feel better and perpetuates a bad cycle,’ he said.
A deadly addiction
Council worker Aaron McDonald, 22, died on November 28, 2013, from asphyxiation while using nangs.
A Victorian coroner found he died in ‘tragic accidental circumstances from asphyxia following the recreational use of nitrous oxide’.
‘It’s cost me the person I was meant to be with… [they have] blood on their hands,’ his girlfriend Jess Cochran told A Current Affair.
‘Part of me would want to yell and scream at him… but another part would just want to embrace him.’
Council worker Aaron McDonald, 22, (pictured with his girlfriend Jess Cochran) died on November 28, 2013, from asphyxiation while using nangs
Hamish Bidgood fell from his death from a Gold Coast balcony during Schoolies after taking nangs
Then in 2018, Turramurra High School student Hamish Bidgood fell from his death from a Gold Coast balcony during Schoolies.
Police at the time said he was inhaling nitrous oxide after a night of drinking with friends, before he was found dead about 5am.
Brisbane woman Tamika Dudley became unable to walk for two months after becoming a regular user before nights out or when she was ‘bored’, after trying them for the first time in 2019.
The young woman was rushed to hospital in May 2019, unable to feel her arms and legs after suffering severe damage from inhaling the drug.
Tamika Dudley became unable to walk for two months after becoming a regular nang user
Doctors were initially unaware of what was going on, and Ms Dudley had to undergo multiple tests, including an MRI, CT scan, and a lumbar puncture.
The next morning she was paralysed from the waist down.
She later discovered she had severely damaged her nerves due to long-term vitamin B12 depletion, caused by her nitrous oxide use.
‘I was scared I was going to be a vegetable in a wheelchair forever,’ she said.
‘Not once in my head did I think “this is going to make me paralysed” or f***k “I might end up like a vegetable forever” not once did it cross my mind.’
Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association executive officer Sam Biondo said there was a lack of social responsibility among many sellers of nitrous oxide.
‘Many of these operators are actively trying to make a profit from the misuse of nitrous oxide, with a disregard for their health and welfare,’ he said.
‘Nitrous oxide being delivered at 3am is definitely not for making a cake.’
Dr Roberts said nang users were generally well-educated and pointed to the example of some taking B12 supplements in the mistaken belief it would counteract the effects, indicating better information resources were needed.
He said family or friends concerned about a loved one using nangs and want to intervene should look out for the early signs of abuse including tingling in the fingers and toes, changes in concentration, feeling depressed, and reduced coordination and incontinence.
‘Similarly, finding many bulbs in the rubbish is also concerning,’ he said.
Robert finally managed to get clean after he was sexually assaulted when he had his drink spiked during his first visit to his local pub after lockdown ended last year.
He went through heavy weeks of nang use to ‘cope with the trauma’ – and then said the ‘shock to his system’ from the assault combined with the end of lockdown and being free to leave his flat set him on the path to recovery.
Eight months later, he is excelling at his new job and the physical and personality changes that alarmed me during his addiction have receded.
Robert now looks, sounds, and acts like his old self and is slowly rebuilding his life by making new friends and restoring his finances.
He had just $10 in his bank account after finally kicking the habit and owed tens of thousands to credit card companies and nang dealers. But he is on track to have all his debts paid off by October, and has moved into a new, bigger flat.
On-demand nang deliveries flourished in recent years in much the same way as the proliferation of UberEats, Deliveroo, and Jimmy Brings
Despite the significant damage they did to his life, Robert refuses to scorn anyone who uses nangs – particularly as a coping mechanism for a traumatic childhood.
‘Anyone who’s felt the benefit of a cup of coffee on a Monday or a beer on a Friday can’t judge me for what I’ve done to cope with my own life,’ he said.
Instead, he warned those considering nangs and other drugs that his experience shows anyone can get addicted.
‘I don’t think there’s anything we can say that will stop teenagers trying nangs or other drugs,’ Robert said.
‘But we can teach them harm minimisation and to recognise the signs of addiction, so if they see themselves or one of their friends slipping into it, they can get help.
‘We need to be more understanding of how people get addicted and try to help them.’
Are nangs illegal?
Nitrous oxide is not illegal for adults to buy or sell, but it is a crime in NSW, Victoria, and South Australia to sell to a customer the seller believes will misuse it.
Victoria imposes $8,000 fines and up to two years’ jail for anyone selling them for human consumption.
South Australia is the only state that regulates the sale of nitrous oxide, banning purchases between 10pm and 5am.
Shops also cannot openly display nitrous oxide cannisters.
There is no explicit crime in Queensland, but police could levy fines under summary offences laws if they could prove the seller reasonably believed the customer might misuse the product.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration will from October 1 classify nitrous oxide as a schedule 6 poison, unless it is being used for therapeutic purposes.
That means boxes must have warning labels and safety directions telling customers not to inhale the contents.
However, it declined to impose any restrictions on sale, including quantity limits or hours of trade.