Softly Into That Good Nitrous

Why sales of pressurized laughing gas are sky high in Arizona

Rare but fascinating to witness is an instance where a desperate whippit sucker attempts to open a canister without the aid of a cracker. The one time I saw this done, the plan was to hammer a nail through the seal, then quickly grab the canister and suck the gas. This was about 5:30 in the morning, with another guy and me going, "Dude, that's not a good idea." A chorus of other voices shushed us, as they wanted to see what would happen, which was this: The whippit ricocheted across the kitchen like a silver bullet, shattering a glass of Merlot and denting the toaster oven, then fell to the tile and spun a slow half-circle, hissing like a serpent.

High pressure isn't hippie crack's only hazardous property. When N2O is released from a whippit, it's cold enough to flash-freeze spittle. This poses a potentially embarrassing threat to users who leave their balloon attached to the cracker, and inhale the gas through the metal. Unless adequate warming time is allowed between the cracking of the whippit and the mouthing of the cracker, the metal will stick to a pair of lips like they're coated with super glue.

Whippit suckers thus afflicted usually react in one of three ways: 1) Because of nitrous oxide's anesthetic quality, they don't realize the cracker is stuck to their lips, and mindlessly peel it away, tearing off a bloody ring of skin; 2) They simply wait for the metal to heat up and disengage itself; 3) They freak out and make frantic, ball-gagged noises, the limp party balloon swinging to and fro like an absurd elephant's trunk.

This is, of course, hilarious.

Not so funny is what often happens when people do a balloon while standing up: they fall down, a.k.a. "fish out."

Nitrous should not be used carelessly. The gas itself may be relatively harmless, but use it in the wrong place -- like behind the wheel, or standing near the edge of an empty swimming pool -- and its effects will kill you.

Last month, nitrous was in the news after an MIT junior died while inhaling the gas. Newspaper articles reported the 22-year-old physics major filled a garbage bag with nitrous from his dorm's communal tank (pilfered from a campus lab), then returned to his room, alone, and put the bag over his head. He suffocated.

Two years ago in Cleveland, Ohio, four teenage boys died under similar circumstances, after they got in a car with a tank of nitrous, rolled up all the windows, and opened the valve.

Last year, two Illinois men in their mid-20s broke into a chemical supply warehouse and mistakenly stole a tank of nitric oxide gas, which corrodes metal, not to mention lung tissue. The men hooked up the tank to a scuba-diving regulator. One took a deep breath and gave himself a lifelong case of chronic chemical pneumonia.

The common factor in most nitrous horror stories is the presence of a 60-pound tank, enough to fill thousands of balloons. The inherent danger of a tank is that it tempts users to dispense with the one-balloon-at-a-time method and inhale a continuous flow of nitrous through a mask, à la Dennis Hopper's character in Blue Velvet.

Unless they alternate whiffs from the mask with gulps of air (also like Hopper's character), or supplement the flow with at least 20 percent oxygen, such users die.

Contrary to popular drug lore, nitrous does not produce its fleeting euphoria by cutting off the flow of oxygen to your brain (in fact, it increases your intercranial blood flow).

But while inhaling nitrous oxide doesn't stop oxygen from getting to your brain, inhaling nothing but nitrous oxide certainly does.

I've watched people turn themselves blue only doing whippits, by inhaling a balloon, exhaling, then inhaling another balloon prepared by an accomplice. This only goes on so long, however, before they lose muscle control and fall back in their seat, grinning and twitching. Then, within seconds, their color returns, they snap back to reality, sit up, and immediately reach for the box of whippits.

Nitrous is crazy like that. It rockets you to the heavens, then yanks you back to Earth just as quickly. The American philosopher William James wrote of this experience in his 1882 essay Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide:

"With me, as with every other person who I have heard, the keynote of the experience is the tremendously exciting sense of an intense metaphysical illumination. Truth lies open to the view in depth beneath depth of almost blinding evidence. The mind sees all logical relations of being with an apparent subtlety and instantaneity to which its normal consciousness offers no parallel.

"Only as sobriety returns, the feeling of insight fades, and one is left staring vacantly as a few disjointed phrases, as one stares at a cadaverous looking snow peak from which sunset has just fled."

As is true for most anesthetic agents, no one understands precisely how nitrous oxide works on the brain. We know it distorts synaptic responses in a way that dulls pain and disassociates mind from body, but we don't know exactly how, just as we don't know exactly how planets are made.

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