Last week, I legally purchased a recreational drug powerful enough that it can cause blackouts, paralysis and even fatal brain damage. A seller was surprisingly easy to find — in almost any one of the hundreds of smoke and tobacco shops occupying virtually every square mile of Los Angeles.
Nitrous oxide — a.k.a. whippits, Noz, N2O — is so readily available because of a confusing provision in California law that allows its sale to those older than 18 as long as it’s not to be inhaled. This is intended to allow it for culinary and automotive use. But smoke and tobacco shops — stores that specialize in inhalants — have been selling nitrous for years without anyone paying much attention.
Huffing (inhaling) nitrous oxide is addictive, it’s big money, and it became my son’s drug of choice while he resided in a local sober living. It is undetectable on drug tests, and a well-known option for those who want to get high without getting caught.
To investigate how freely it is sold for recreational purposes, I dropped into my local smoke shop. “I’m giving a party,” I lied to the salesperson. “Do you have something called ‘whippits’?”
“This way,” he said, nodding toward a plastic tub brimming with colorful balloons that are used to inhale the drug. Next to this display of inhalant paraphernalia was the holy grail of cheap highs: cases of “Whip-Its! The Original!” Officially marketed for culinary use, the boxes feature a smiling woman in 1960s-style dress showing off her whipped cream dispenser. Within minutes, I was able to purchase a $12 carton of 24 canisters of nitrous, a dispenser (sometimes called a “cracker”) and four royal blue balloons.
Smoke and tobacco shops have no business promoting or profiting from the illegal misuse of this substance.
When nitrous oxide is legally used as an anesthetic, most commonly as “laughing gas” during dental procedures, the mix is usually 70% oxygen and 30% nitrous. But recreational users release pure gas into a balloon, then inhale that. The nitrous oxide is absorbed directly into the bloodstream and hits the brain almost immediately. This provides a short burst of euphoria, laughter, dizziness and distorted perception sometimes described as 40 seconds of bliss.
But the gas displaces air in the lungs, so users also aren’t getting any oxygen. And this sudden deprivation of oxygen to the brain can cause not just loss of consciousness, but also strokes, paralysis, heart failure and death from asphyxiation.
In November 2018, a student at Ohio University died from asphyxiation due to nitrous oxide. The coroner listed his death as “accidental.” The teenage brother of a good friend of mine inhaled nitrous and died the same way. The abuse of nitrous oxide was also implicated in the suicide of professional basketball player Tyler Honeycutt. Although my son has since committed to a life of sobriety, the reality is that on any day or night, he can walk into any smoke shop and be tempted to buy everything he needs to resume his frightening substance abuse.
Alarming for even non-users, many who abuse nitrous inhale it right after they buy it — in their parked car or even while driving. Recent news reports have noted fatal car crashes where the driver, high on nitrous, passed out behind the wheel. Last November, an 11-year-old girl was killed at a Boyle Heights intersection by a driver who was speeding and inhaling nitrous. The small empty metal cannisters are now seen discarded by the dozens outside nightclubs and at music festivals.
Smoke and tobacco shops have no business promoting or profiting from the illegal misuse of this substance. Senate Bill 193 will make selling nitrous in smoke and tobacco shops specifically a criminal offense. Retailers or their employees can be charged with a misdemeanor. For a second violation, a business license can be suspended for a year.
After passing through three committee votes, the bill is sitting with the Senate Appropriations Committee to be heard again May 17 before it can get a floor vote and move to the Assembly and governor.
This bill should not be allowed to fade into Sacramento’s bureaucratic machinery. If California continues to ignore these blatantly illegal sales, we are sending a message that nitrous oxide abuse is as innocent as the colorful balloons suggest.
Barbara Straus Lodge is a writer in Los Angeles and a co-founder of Above the Noise Foundation, which creates sober music festivals.