LOS ANGELES — Hundreds of law enforcement officers on Friday raided Southern California auto parts shops and other businesses suspected of illegally selling nitrous oxide for use as a recreational drug, in one of the nation's largest such raids to date.
Authorities served search warrants on 17 businesses and nine delivery vehicles during the simultaneous raids in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties, and three people were arrested on misdemeanor charges of misbranding a drug in violation of the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. A fourth person named in a federal warrant was being sought by authorities.
The operation was the result of a year-and-a-half-long joint investigation dubbed "No Laughing Matter" by the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Criminal Investigations and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
The FDA has recently focused on the illegal use of nitrous oxide, also known as "laughing gas," and this was its largest case to date, said special agent Lisa Hartsell. Though nitrous oxide has long been a rave phenomenon, it has recently grown into more mainstream use, propelled by the ease of social media to reach young people and spread the word.
"This is a very cheap drug, can be had very easily, it is not a controlled substance, so your big members of the law enforcement community don't have the ability to control it," Hartsell said.
The gas is legally used by dentists for anesthesia, to pressurize whipped cream canisters and to speed up race cars. But authorities say its illegal use has spurred fatal car accidents, rapes and teen deaths — all in the name of a temporary high.
Los Angeles County sheriff's officials have zeroed in on the recreational use of the drug since September, cracking down on more than 350 illegal parties, nearly all of which were selling nitrous oxide, or "noz," spokesman Mike Parker said Thursday.
The operations are part of a new social media team set up by the Sheriff's Department over the last six months to monitor and identify such illegal activities around the clock. The team has found many public posts that advertise alcohol and illegal drugs such as nitrous oxide and that target teens.
"They're doing the social media equivalent of standing outside the front doors of a high school at 3 o'clock as school lets out with a megaphone announcing that there'll be drugs, noz and alcohol for children, and then handing out fliers to all the kids that are interested," Parker said.
These parties can be lucrative for those provisioning them. Sheriff's deputies have been tracking one distributor who is making more than $60,000 a month in the bulk sale of nitrous oxide, said Sgt. Glenn Walsh, who works in the Sheriff's Department's narcotics bureau.
Hartsell said the drugs have also spurred armed robberies as gangs steal tanks from each other in an effort to make easy money with light legal ramifications.
Sheriff's officials believe they have prevented a least 30 violent and sexual assaults in the last six months because of their efforts to shut down illegal nitrous oxide-related parties before they happen.
One party was forced to change locations three times in one night, before finally moving outside of the sheriff's jurisdiction, Parker said. But the department also notifies neighboring departments of the illegal parties when it spots them, Parker said.
Some of the hotspots are unincorporated Los Angeles County and the San Gabriel Valley, where parties are held primarily in homes and warehouses, Parker said.
Part of the problem for law enforcement officers going after the illegal use of nitrous oxide is that its distribution or use as a recreational drug is only a misdemeanor, officials said.
Sheriff's Lt. Rod Armalin said the department is working on legislation to increase the penalties.
Armalin supervises the team that responds to many of these illegal parties and tries to prevent them from happening.
"Over the past year we've seen an increase in incidents," Armalin said. "It seems like it's really taken off with young people. ... They're openly advertising, 'Hey we're going to sell nitrous oxide, and there are going to be children there,' and that's a concern."
Nitrous oxide isn't the only dangerous substance teens are turning to for a quick and cheap high. On Monday, a 14-year-old Los Angeles honors student died after inhaling computer keyboard dust cleaner, apparently to get high. Aria Doherty's sister found her in bed with a can of compressed air cleaning product attached to her mouth.
Earlier this month a 12-year-old San Bernardino County girl, Kristal Salcido, died after inhaling Freon from an air conditioner.