PARTY DRUG DANGER - In a recent $745,000,000.00 wrongful death verdict against United Brands, a jury determined that the mega-corporation was 70% at fault for a young nurse killed when an SUV driver passed out behind the wheel and plowed into her on the sidewalk.
The driver, 20-year-old Trenton Geiger, had become unconscious while “huffing” nitrous oxide (Whip It!) which he’d purchased from a smoke shop. In addition to finding United Brands 70% guilty, the jury decided that the smoke shop which sold the product was 20% at fault, and Geiger himself only 10% at fault.
I became furious, wondering how many more deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars it will take before California lawmakers follow suit and finally outlaw this dangerous gas from being mis-marketed and sold to young people. California has a history of quashing efforts to limit the sales of Whip Its!, and I’m starting to wonder if there’s a deep, insidious reason why.
In 2020 San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan brought a groundbreaking consumer protection lawsuit against nitrous oxide distributor United Brands for selling nitrous oxide, an addictive deadly drug, to minors. The case was investigated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and ultimately United Brands paid a $50,000 out of court settlement. While this effort spread awareness and made progress towards protecting young adults from purchasing nitrous oxide (aka Whip Its!), the news was short lived, and the settlement slipped under the radar.
Moreover, In 2019, I testified before the California Senate and Assembly in support of the passage of California Senate Bill 193 which would have amended the California Penal Code to make the blanket sale of nitrous oxide in smoke shops a crime. The Bill unanimously passed through the Senate then I recall hearing whispers in Sacramento about United Brands lobbyists catching wind of our Bill. The Bill was soon thereafter sent to Assembly Appropriations “Suspense” to die a silent death.
Subsequently in 2021, I worked on California Senate Bill 491 which, again, fought for imposing criminal penalties on smoke shops for knowingly selling nitrous oxide as a party drug to individuals. This Bill was swiftly killed in Appropriations, citing costs of enforcement.
United Brands has now been caught targeting the sale of Whippets to young people looking for a way to get high. Johnny Simon, attorney for the family of the deceased, described United Brands’ actions as tantamount to running a drug distribution ring.
Evidence revealed in the wrongful death case was momentous. A former United Brands warehouse employee testified that three quarters of the company's Whip Its! were sold to smoke shops. Smoke shops sell inhalants and therefore this product was wrongly sold to be inhaled. Plus, emails between company staff and smoke shop workers, uncovered the company's insidious business model and marketing campaigns which were directed at young people in the concert and party scenes.
According to Attorney Simon, “The manufacturer and sellers of nitrous conspire to sell drugs that they know are addictive and that they know hurt people.”
Originally advertised as a whipped cream propellant used by the likes of Starbucks (with a warning against inhalation) Whip It! canisters have earned a reputation as party drugs that provide a quick euphoric high when “huffed” or inhaled. What that “euphoria” really is, though, is the feeling of brain cells starving for oxygen. This oxygen deprivation can cause not only brain damage, but also black-outs, strokes, paralysis, heart failure, and sudden death from asphyxiation.
The issue is personal. Huffing (inhaling) nitrous oxide became my son’s drug of choice while he resided in a local sober living. Nitrous Oxide is undetectable on drug tests, and a well-known option for those who want to get high without getting caught. Users are often unaware of its life-threatening dangers. My son’s use spiraled out of control until he was ultimately hospitalized with nitrous oxide induced psychosis and transient paralysis.
There are far too many tragic outcomes involving abuses of nitrous oxide to turn a blind eye.
Mohamed A., a young MD and PhD candidate, lost his life partner, Amanda, to an overdose of nitrous oxide, This young woman, whose depression was complicated by pandemic-related isolation, began inhaling nitrous oxide for its dissociative effects. Amanda was able to acquire thousands of nitrous oxide canisters from smoke shops located only blocks away from her home. As her addiction spiraled out of control, she wrote a foreboding statement in her private journal, “this stuff needs to be harder to get.” A few months later, only days after her 30th birthday, her deceased body was found near hundreds of empty canisters.
Users and nonusers alike are dying, and, still, no one is paying attention. Many who abuse nitrous, inhale it right after buying it — in their parked car or even while driving like Trenton Geiger. My (now sober) son described the parking lot behind his favorite smoke shop as being littered with spent canisters from people inhaling the drug before driving away.
This stuff needs to be harder to get.
While last week’s $743,000,000 verdict against United Brands and its smoke shop seller is a start, new legislation is needed to spread awareness and halt the illicit sale of this dangerous drug. Please call, write, or email your California State Legislator and voice your support for legislation prohibiting smoke shops from selling nitrous oxide canisters.
(Barbara Straus Lodge has appeared in Huffington Post Oped, The Rumpus Voices of Addiction, Parabola Magazine, New York Times Motherlode Blog, Los Angeles Times LA Affairs, JSAT- the Journal of Substance Abuse and Addiction Treatment, Chicken Soup for the Soul Random Acts of Kindness, and a variety of anthologies. She is an attorney, writer, drug policy activist in Sacramento, and currently works with RAND Corporation on a research project involving the support of loved ones in motivating substance abusers to make healthy choices. Her writing on the subject of Los Angeles smoke shops selling Whip Its has appeared in a 2019 Los Angeles Times OpEd and City Watch LA.)