5 Realities Of The One Illegal Drug Available Everywhere
Nitrous oxide is either the stuff the dentist uses to make you think drilling is hilarious, or the stuff Vin Diesel uses to make his car go all blurry. But nitrous oxide can also get you high, as anybody who's sadly tried to suck the last of the whipped cream out of the can can attest. And, like any powerful drug, it breeds its own kind of addicts. We talked with former addict Amos Kortchmar, as well as a former binge user of the substance. They told us ...
No One Takes Nitrous Addiction Seriously
Nitrous isn't one of those "bad drugs" they teach you about in DARE. It's not sexy enough for an after-school special. Regular nitrous users don't even meet the clinical definition of inhalant abuse, because the effects of nitrous on your body are so benign. It's not good for you, but it's also safe enough that we give it to kids when they need a tooth ripped out.
Say no to drugs, unless that drug makes your little darling go adorably viral.
It's impossible to know how common recreational nitrous use is. Even though roughly 10 percent of teenagers try inhalants, there's no data that breaks that number down more precisely, so nitrous gets lumped in with huffing paint or gas or whatever else bored kids in Oklahoma are doing this week. But while nitrous is pretty forgiving on your body, it is powerfully addictive in the short term. One user we spoke with described it as:
"Forty seconds of absolute bliss. It's a little like being back inside the womb. And then it fades, and you want to feel that way again, so you take another and another. ... It's the potato chip of drugs."
"Bet you can't breathe just one."
And, like any fun substance, some percentage of users will develop a serious problem. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but this rehab center reports an increase in nitrous addicts over the last few years. Our source Amos actually went to Narcotics Anonymous with his nitrous problem -- but they weren't exactly prepared to deal with him:
"When I decided to go for treatment, some of the NA members who were recovering from hard drugs scoffed at me. Some, like my session leader, were supportive, but others just didn't consider my addiction real. One heroin addict even said to me after one meeting, 'We're real addicts here. Some of these people really need to talk it over, not you breathing in Reddi-Wip cans, man.' Even my sponsor said he thought I didn't have a 'serious' type of addiction."
And that's kind of a problem, because ...
It Does Have Some Physical Dangers
NOS's reputation for safety is a big part of what drew Amos in: "When I was first introduced to it at my former job (I had a job where it was readily available), I was even told that it was safer than pot."
But nitrous isn't completely without side effects. Our other source points out: "Nitrous oxide depletes your body of vitamin B-12. You'd have to do a lot of it to cause any serious neurological damage. Thousands of chargers ... but I know people who've done it and had to be hospitalized."
As opposed to 40,000 joints, making laughing gas way more dangerous, technically.
B-12 deficiency can be serious. One subject cited by The Lancet reportedly did 50 whippets a day for six months straight, resulting in "tingling and numbness, severe constipation, and urinary urge incontinence." B-12 deficiency can also fuck with your nervous system, making it difficult to walk. Most people would need to do a lot of nitrous over a long period of time to suffer this badly -- but people who are naturally B-12 deficient can experience "significant neurologic dysfunction" from just a single whippet.
Nitrous oxide abuse actually put Demi Moore in the hospital with "seizure-like" symptoms. And it frequently causes minor injuries. Amos recalls: "For me, it really affected my day-to-day life. I would do around 10 to 15 canisters of nitrous a day. ... Due to the rush of nitrous going in, you will lose balance and fall over. When you fall, you instinctively put your arms out to cushion the fall, but since nitrous briefly puts your brain on hold, I would fall and get bruised or, on occasion, break a finger or something. This is actually pretty common among users."
Most nitrous users, like Amos, use this little device to inflate balloons, which they then huff from:
These can hold only enough nitrous at a time for someone to huff for maybe a minute. Usually much less. There's no risk of brain damage until you hit two to three minutes without oxygen. And yet, Nitrous users have still found ways to make their drug deadly. Some people opt to fill plastic bags with NOS and stick their heads inside to huff, an obviously terrible idea that has killed a surprising number of MIT students. Go figure.
They were certainly on something there when designing the place.
It's Legal To Buy For Just About Anybody
The device we showed you above is called a whipped cream cracker. You fill that guy with little metal tubes filled with nitrous, aka whippets, and then you huff out of the tube. You can buy the crackers and the canisters in stores. They're perfectly legal, because the intended use is to make whipped cream. You'll see those crackers at any Starbucks you walk into for the same reason.
Nitrous oxide is sold over the counter most often at kitchen supply stores ... and "adult" toy stores/head shops. "It's really expensive there. You'll pay a dollar or more per whippet," said our anonymous source.
If they're not selling it right next to the blooper videos, they have failed as marketers.
Some countries and states have laws that limit purchasing them until the age of 18, and some prohibit online sales. Other than that you can buy to your heart's content. According to our anonymous source, most regular users choose to buy it online:
"There are sites like CreamRight.com where you can order a case of nitrous -- 600 whippets -- for 200 bucks. Some people order pallets of those ahead of festivals and big outdoor events."
Because when the bass can drop at any moment, you need to be ready.
If caught with nitrous, cops have to prove you were using it for "recreational" purposes for there to be any crime. If you weren't caught directly using, then you're nothing more than a group of people who are seriously into mochas.
Amos remembers how easy the process was (and still is): "When I was using, canisters were easy to come by. It's just a matter of buying canisters and using in a place not seen by officials. Seriously -- I bought my whipper at a Walmart, complete with canisters, and did a few hits less than five minutes later. For most drugs, you need to fake an injury for a prescription or meet a dealer at a discreet location. Here, it's sold right next to a cardboard cutout of the Pillsbury Doughboy. For an addiction, having it be that readily accessed is pretty much begging for it to be abused. Since it was on my usual grocery shopping route, it was easy to keep up my addiction."
If you started stocking heroin right next to the Cheez-Its, you'd get a lot more heroin addicts.
Certain Occupations Are More At Risk For Nitrous Addiction
Amos had a job where he was literally always within arm's reach of a whippet: "I worked in the restaurant business (I won't say where, but let's just say I had to make a lot of desserts, and to make the whipped cream we went through a lot of nitrous)."
It's like over-sampling the cooking sherry for alcoholics.
You might expect professional race car drivers to have a nitrous problem. But most automotive suppliers add hydrogen sulfide to their nitrous to dissuade huffers. Our anonymous source commented on that:
"Yeah, they add sulfur. It doesn't stop us from using it: I have a few friends with tanks and double-filter setups that remove all the sulfur with charcoal. Serious drug users spend a lot of time at Home Depot, incidentally."
Crackheads have their rocks; these guys have theirs.
The biggest professions-of-abuse for nitrous are actually dentists and anesthesiologists, since they're the ones with a functionally infinite supply of the stuff. Nitrous is a major non-prescription addiction for dentists. Many are around it so much that it actually becomes an occupational hazard, because they get so many inadvertent hits a day. It becomes their end-of-the-day relaxer. And just like other professions where nitrous is always right there in front of you, addictions can form at a higher-than-usual rate. In the restaurant industry, there are actually a handful of deaths each year from nitrous. It's no, uh ... laughing matter.
Pun intended, but at least we're ashamed about it.
There Are No Physical Withdrawal Symptoms, And That Makes Treatment Harder
It is super hard to get addicted to nitrous oxide. You have to take a lot to become addicted to a gas. That process is helped along by the fact that users' brains eventually become tolerant to nitrous, which can make getting a solid buzz on more difficult. Amos said:
"I built a tolerance. When you get a nitrous high, you feel great (euphoria), your arms and hands tingle, and you don't feel like doing much for a while. But do a square dozen a day, and you'll need more to get that high. Soon, you may be at 40 or 50 a day."
To be fair, they don't look very filling on their own.
"I stopped when I was at 15. I already mentioned how there are no withdrawal symptoms, and it's true. You don't hit lows; there are no jonesings -- you just want euphoria, not normal. Most drugs take you from normal to high to low with a whole host of rehab issues. Nitrous takes you from normal to high to normal again, with no problems getting off. I was just having a hard time in my job and needed more than a minute of high."
Strangely enough, that makes it harder for some people to quit. No bad memories or flashbacks to painful withdrawals means lapsing is all the more tempting.
So when great-grandma talks about the good old days, you know exactly what she means.
It's hard to get help for a nitrous addiction. Amos said: "After getting out of NA and breaking my canister, I expected the worst going cold turkey, but it was just back to normal. No hallucinations, no moments of REALLY needing a hit -- just a nagging thought that I could feel good instantly."
Right now, there are no medications for inhalant treatment, and there is no recognized medical therapy. Inhalant treatment is actually very dependent on finding which inhalant you are on and personalizing your treatment based on that drug, since every inhalant has different moods and effects that spring up from it. Amos went with a mixture of methods: "For me, having two of my trusted friends check up on me, keeping my broken canister around as a reminder, and attending a session or two of NA a month helped me through. For some people it's harder than others, and for nitrous users, it can be pretty hard to find another person who is addicted to it who lives close by who wants help."
It's not like you can just hang out at a dentist office looking for an impromptu sponsor.
For more insider perspectives, check out 7 Things You Don't Realize About Addiction (Until You Quit) and 5 Unexpected Things I Learned From Being A Heroin Addict.
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Check out Robert Evans' A Brief History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built Civilization, a celebration of the brave, drunken pioneers who built our civilization one seemingly bad decision at a time.