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Nitrous Oxide Is New Teen Drug of Choice, Police Say

The scenes are becoming increasingly common in Anaheim: Several teens and young adults huddle outside a fast-food joint, taking turns sucking on a balloon.

Dozens of young adults at an industrial complex pass around a balloon after taking “hits,” their giddy laughter booming off the buildings.

At a crowded party, a pressurized gas tank stands by a table – not far from the potato chips.

Nitrous oxide, for years used by physicians for its anesthetic and analgesic effects, is becoming the drug of choice for teens and young adults in Anaheim, says Sgt. Steve Pena, a drug recognition expert with Anaheim PD.

“Parents need to be on the lookout and be aware,” Pena says. “Abuse of nitrous oxide clearly is on the rise.”

In the past month, two suicides have been linked to nitrous oxide, Pena says.

Dentists routinely use nitrous oxide for its pain-numbing effects. Teens and young adults are embracing it for an intense but brief high. A blast of nitrous oxide from a balloon can, within 8 to 10 seconds, cause dizziness, giddiness, disorientation and, occasionally, visual hallucinations – effects users crave, authorities say.

Often taken with the drug Ecstasy, nitrous oxide can cause confusion, headaches and a sensation that one is about to pass out or faint.

The effects last 2 to 3 minutes — enough time for someone to die, Pena says. Police have received reports of people inhaling nitrous oxide while driving – an extremely dangerous combination.

A commonly abused form of nitrous oxide is found in small, pressurized food-preparation containers called “whip-its,” or EZ Whip. Users place the whip-it in a “cracker,” and then place a balloon on one end of the cracker and turn it until the whip-it pops. This releases nitrous oxide into the balloon.

Whip-its, a cracker and a balloon can be purchased on-line for about $10 to $20, Pena says.
Large, pressurized gas tanks containing nitrous oxide can be purchased at race car shops for between $50 and $100, Pena says. The gas commonly is used to improve engine performance.

Long-term abuse can damage the central nervous system and brain cells. Users also can suffer loss of balance and dexterity, weakness, and numbness in the extremities.

At high doses, nitrous oxide can kill since it replaces oxygen in the bloodstream, depressing the central nervous system and halting breathing.

It’s a misdemeanor to possess nitrous oxide, or any substance containing nitrous oxide, with the intent of inhaling it to get intoxicated, Pena notes.

Pena hopes that the now-familiar sight of teens and young adults in Anaheim sucking on balloons becomes less common.

“Parents, teachers, and law enforcement need to recognize the paraphernalia used while inhaling nitrous oxide,” Pena says. “And children need to be educated about the dangers and long-term effects – and the possibility of death.

“This is one balloon, figuratively speaking, that needs to be popped.”