Pubdate: Sat, 06 Jan 2001
Source: Arizona Daily Star (AZ)
Copyright: 2001 Pulitzer Publishing Co.
Contact:  P.O. Box 26807, Tucson, AZ 85726-6807
Fax: (520) 573-4141
Author: Howard Fischer


PHOENIX - Arizona police chiefs want to make sure that if someone is
buying nitrous oxide, the intent is to whip some cream.

Legislation introduced in the House of Representatives would make it a
crime to sell canisters of nitrous oxide, better known as laughing
gas, unless there's a legitimate purpose. It also would make a
criminal of anyone who showed someone else how to use the small
canisters - commonly known as "whippets" - to get high.

The measure, HB 2011, is sponsored by Rep. Mike Gleason, R-Sun City
West, at the behest of El Mirage Police Chief Richard Yost. Yost said
he has the backing of the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police.

Yost said he became convinced that nitrous oxide abuse was a problem
when he talked to the family of a teen who died on Dec. 24, 1999. At
first, the cause of death was listed as natural when an autopsy
revealed a problem with a heart valve. But Yost said that conclusion
was changed after interviews with the youth's friends showed he was a
user of laughing gas.

Such deaths are rare, said Jude McNally, managing director of the
Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center at the University of
Arizona's College of Pharmacy. They are mentioned in medical
literature, he said, but none has been reported in Tucson through the
poison control center.

"For the most part, it's very low on our list of what we get called
about," McNally said. "Someone who is abusing nitrous oxide through
the use of 'whippets' isn't likely to have an acute medical emergency
and call the poison control center."

Common side effects of nitrous oxide inhalation include headache and
dizziness, McNally said. Heavy doses can increase blood pressure,
cause hypertension and induce changes in heart rhythm, McNally said.

Chronic inhalation of nitrous oxide also has been shown to suppress
sperm count in laboratory animals and is linked to methemoglobinemia,
a condition that inhibits the release of oxygen from blood cells, he

Nothing in Arizona law makes the purchase or sale of nitrous oxide
illegal. The canisters are sold primarily to individuals and
restaurants for food preparation purposes, mostly to use for
automatically whipping cream. In fact, nitrous is so popular for that
purpose that it is the propellant in commercial whipping creams sold
in grocery stores.

But Yost said the canisters purchased by the El Mirage teen clearly
were not meant to make a dessert topping. "He went to a local 'head
shop' in my town, bought some propellant and used it," the chief said.

Yost said one his own undercover officers went into the same shop. He
said the clerk not only pointed out the item and told him it could be
used to get high but also instructed him on how to do it. Yost said,
similar exercises by police departments in other communities produced
identical results.

In Tucson, small canisters of nitrous oxide gas are sold at smoke
shops across the city. A package of 10 canisters, for example, costs
$6 at Head East, a smoke shop at 8739 E. Broadway.

"What people do is puncture the seal, let the nitrous escape into a
balloon and inhale it," said Andy Encinas, a manager at the store. "It
gives you like a 50-second high, like a temporary disillusionment.

"Whenever I see people coming in and buying them, I think it's just a
killer waste of time," he said. "The effect is pretty close to putting
your head between your legs for a while. then standing up real fast.
It doesn't last real long."

The legislation contains language designed to show how the gas is
being sold. And it allows a jury to conclude, if there's no other
evidence, that someone who helped put the gas into a balloon was doing
it for illegal reasons.

Encinas said such a law would be difficult to enforce, since the gas
could still be sold for legitimate purposes. "It would be totally
ridiculous," he said.

Yost acknowledged the potential loophole. "If a head shop sells it as
a food propellant," he said. "there's probably not much I can do about

McNally said he'd prefer to see state officials focus on drug
education efforts rather than new regulations on potential

"While I'm certainly not opposed to a law like that, I'm not sure that
from our perspective it makes anyone safer," he said. "If someone
wants to get high, there's a million things out there they'd still
have access to." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake