If you’ve ever gotten home from the grocery store with a can of whipped cream that doesn’t work, you’re at least one degree of separation from an old method of drug abuse that’s gaining new momentum. Powering that whipped cream can is a small dose of nitrous oxide, which escapists young and old long ago figured out can get them high, provided they suck right from the spout before shaking the can.
They’re called “whip-its,” whippets, whipits or whippits, and while there may be no universally agreed upon spelling, no one seems to dispute that abuse of the drug has been surging in recent years. The L.A. County sheriff’s recent “crackdown” on the use of nitrous oxide as a party drug comes after a crackdown in California, with arrests at more than 350 illegal parties where “noz” was being sold. Fatal car accidents, rapes, and teen deaths have all recently been attributed to the drug.
So what’s a whip-it?
Hippie crack. That’s one of several slang terms for the stuff, which can be sold by the individual canister or by an entire tank. They’re perfectly legal to purchase—though illegal in many states if you plan to use them as a recreational drug—which is why they’re regulated by the Food and Drug administration, and not the Drug Enforcement Agency. As a drug, nitrous is among many forms of inhalants, including solvents and gasoline, that people use to alter the mind.
Part euphoria, part hypoxia. Like a lot of drugs, whip-its aren’t good for you. They can cause hearing loss, liver and kidney damage, limb spasms, central nervous system or brain damage, bone marrow damage, heart failure, and suffocation. There’s even a syndrome called “Sudden sniffing death,” which is too terrifying to think about.
They can freeze your face, with a result that’s “very similar to frostbite,” Harvey Weiss, director of the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition, told The Daily Beast.
Young people love them. In 2011, 719,000 people aged 12 or older reported using inhalants for the first time within the prior 12 months, a spokesman for the National Institute on Drug Abuse told The Daily Beast. Most of those users were under age 18 when they first tried whip-its. The average age at first use was 16. They’re often sold in balloons at rock concerts.
“It’s widely available, easy to use and easy to conceal,” Weiss said. “People can just go to 7-11 and get high in the aisles.”
Old(er) people love them, too. When Demi Moore was hospitalized last year, friends told TMZ she had seizure-like symptoms brought on by doing whip-its. And recent national surveys have ranked nitrous as one of the most popular drugs among people aged 17 and older, Weiss said.
This ain’t your dentist’s office drug. Whip-its aren’t quite the same as what you get at the dentist’s office, because the dentist carefully controls the amount of oxygen mixed in with the nitrous to make sure it’s safe. That said, many states’ dental associations have been forced to establish treatment programs for dentists and hygienists who have found themselves hooked on the substance, Weiss said.
Distributors are making a killing—literally. One of the L.A. County sheriff’s approaches to dealing with the nitrous surge is to crack down on those selling whip-its. One distributor the office is tracking is reportedly raking in more than $60,000 on the bulk sale of nitrous.