A ring of Southern California businesses has been illegally selling nitrous oxide for use as a recreational drug, federal and local law enforcement officials said Friday afternoon in announcing a regional crackdown.
Three auto supply employees were arrested earlier in the day in a federal law enforcement sweep that included searches of 17 businesses and nine delivery vehicles linked to the ring, authorities said.
A fourth suspect is still being sought.
Nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas, can be used for welding, as a speed booster in cars or as an as anesthetic by dentists and doctors. Despite potentially dangerous side effects, recreational users fill balloons with the drug, known as whippets or noz, and inhale it for the short powerful rush it provides.
The 15-month investigation found that car racing supply stores in Orange County, Los Angeles County and the Inland Empire have been selling nitrous oxide to customers who used the drug to get high, authorities said.
“We want the public, especially parents, to be aware of its abuse by our youth,” U.S. Atty. André Birotte Jr. said in a statement. “We also want those who choose to profit from the sale of nitrous oxide as a recreational drug to know that law enforcement is on your trail. We will find you, prosecute you and convict you.”
Sales of the drug have increased dramatically over the last five years, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and several adolescents in the Los Angeles region have been killed in car accidents linked to the use of the drug.
Two criminal complaints filed Friday allege that the four defendants and stores across the region engaged in “misbranding” the drug by selling it without prescriptions for recreational use in packaging that did not contain warning labels. The federal misdemeanor carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison and up to a $100,000 fine.
The defendants, who had not yet been appointed lawyers, are due in court Monday.