Softly Into That Good Nitrous

Why sales of pressurized laughing gas are sky high in Arizona

Dope pushers lurking around playgrounds? I don't think so. Dentists are more to blame for turning America's children on to the perilous joys of getting high. My dentist introduced me to drugs when I was just 9 years old. A white-haired, kindly man, he laid me back in a soft, leather chair, smiled reassuringly, and strapped a mask over my mouth.

"Deep breaths, now," my doctor ordered.

Time stretched like taffy, as my fear of pain fled before unseen angels, who sprinkled glitter through my vision. Softly, they coaxed a shimmering echo of my body to levitate from the dentist's chair. Untethered from the mother ship, my thoughts roamed through uncharted space.

It's been a long time since that day at the dentist's office, and in the years since, I've rarely just said no to N2O, whether administered by a licensed health-care professional or otherwise.

I was a veritable nitrous vampire as an adolescent, furtively sucking the propellant from whole grocery sections of Redi-Whip. Only upon my 1996 arrival in the Valley of the Spun, though, did I encounter blue-lipped legions of fellow laughing-gas fans, and the legal, open sale of nitrous oxide.

Arizona is one of 22 states where the recreational use of nitrous is not specifically prohibited by law. Single huff canisters, or "whippits," are widely sold in Valley head shops and adult book stores, packaged as whipped cream chargers for a Martha Stewart world. The cardboard boxes are decorated with images of fancy desserts and fresh berries, next to warnings not to do precisely what the manufacturers know you're going to do with their product -- directly inhale the contents.

Partnership for a Drug Free America literature lumps nitrous oxide in with other inhalants, such as model glue and paint thinner, which are highly toxic. Nitrous oxide certainly isn't good for you, but unlike huffing paint thinner, it's not especially bad, either. Nitrous is noncarcinogenic. Your body processes and eliminates it within seconds. Most milk sold in America is infused with nitrous oxide (a bacteria killer), because it's been deemed safe for human consumption (but then, so has bovine growth hormone).

The best arguments DARE types come up with against the frivolous use of nitrous oxide are that it leads users to inhale more dangerous household products when nitrous isn't available, and that it violates the sanctity of a sober mind.

Supposedly, nitrous is nonaddictive. But I've seen people attack a fresh box of whippits like hyenas on a carcass. There's a reason whippits are known as "hippie crack." Habitual users have a propensity to sit around doing whippit after whippit until all the whippits are gone, then go buy more whippits.

And people in this city buy a ton of whippits -- literally -- and then some, every week.

Clerks at each of the Valley's six Trails head-shop outlets report branch sales of 10 to 50 boxes of whippits per day. The Trails location near Mill Avenue and ASU in Tempe moves the most whippits. The store at Third Avenue and Camelback moves the least. The average whippit tally, counting all six stores, is 24 boxes per day.

Some quick math: Six stores selling an average of 24 boxes per day equals 1,008 boxes per week. There are 24 whippits in a box (at Trails, one box of whippits costs $14.95; multiple boxes are $11.95 each), for a total of 24,192 whippits per week sold in the Valley (not counting whippits sold by Castle Boutique adult superstores, Headquarters, and a dozen other small head shops). Each whippit weighs three ounces. That makes 72,576 ounces of whippitage per week, or well more than two tons.

A few words on whippits: They're recyclable. Each cylindrical aluminum canister (Alzheimer's alert) contains one big lung full of nitrous, capped behind a high-pressure seal. In addition to whippits, most Valley head shops also sell "crackers," two-piece brass contraptions designed to pierce a whippit's seal and direct the resulting burst of nitrous oxide gas in a controlled fashion -- typically into an oversize party balloon stretched over the business end of the cracker. Such balloons not only serve as nitrous receptacles, they also add a festive flair to the occasion.

Now, cracking a whippit would not seem to be a particularly complex process. There are just four steps -- screw apart the cracker, insert whippit, screw the cracker together until the seal is pierced, then slowly unscrew the cracker to release the gas.

Simple enough -- unless you're tanked on nitrous oxide.

Put a bunch of people in a room with a few boxes of pressurized laughing gas and a bag of party balloons, and the likelihood of a nitrous-related mishap will rise in direct proportion to the discard pile of empty whippits. The unintentional becomes inevitable.

The most common whippit faux pas is to crank open the cracker too quickly, resulting in a minor explosion which either pops the balloon or, better yet, sends it sailing around the room, making flatulent sphincter noises.

Another frequent party foul is to insert a whippit cartridge upside down, thereby piercing not the whippit's seal but its rounded, bottom end, causing an instant and even more dramatic balloon explosion (if you find yourself next to a person operating a whippit cracker who appears to be exerting far more force than necessary, it's advisable to make sure you're within firecracker safety range -- balloon shrapnel hurts like a bitch at point blank).

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