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).

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.

Astronomers suspect the first step in the formation of planets occurs inside the giant, gaseous clouds created, in theory, by the Big Bang. One such cloud is located near the constellation Sagittarius. Earlier this year, NASA scientists aimed a radio telescope in its direction to study the radio signature of the cloud's molecules.

Last month, NASA reported its findings: The cloud is nitrous oxide. It's also 25,000 light-years away, or one quick round trip, up, up and away, in a beautiful balloon.

Contact David Holthouse at his online address: dholthouse@newtimes.com

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