LOS ANGELES — Hours after federal agents shut down 17 auto parts stores they say were distributing nitrous oxide for use as a recreational drug, the teenagers began to gather.
In at least six of the stores, plain-clothed agents with badges around their necks were pulling information off computers when they were greeted by dozens of teens with “nozz” tanks in hand, said Los Angeles County sheriff’s spokesman Mike Parker.
“The kids were going up to whoever was behind the counter and they started with asking to buy ‘nozz,’ then they started demanding to buy ‘nozz,’” Parker said. Deputies were called back to the scene multiple times that night to get the kids to leave, Parker said.
Though nitrous oxide, also known as “laughing gas,” 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.
The raids March 22 were the nation’s largest such effort against the illegal recreational use of nitrous oxide. Authorities said Friday that, so far, they have arrested 10 people as a result, with more expected.
Four of those were arrested by Food and Drug Administration agents on federal misdemeanor charges of violating the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act by misbranding a drug. Five others were arrested on weapons or narcotics charges, and a 16-year-old boy allegedly holding a “nozz” party after advertising it on social media was arrested on charges of furnishing nitrous oxide to a minor, Parker said.
Authorities seized more than 640 nitrous oxide tanks, which they said have an estimated street value of $20 million. Also seized were 13 guns, including four stolen weapons and four assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and ammunition including armor piercing rounds.
The raids were the result of a 15-month joint investigation dubbed “No Laughing Matter” by the FDA and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Nitrous oxide 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.
None of those who showed up Friday night to fill their tanks were arrested, because no crime was committed, Parker said. But the department has started to zero in on illegal nitrous parties primarily through social media, shutting down more than 350 illegal parties since September, he said.
“We see hundreds of kids commenting (since the raid) about ‘Where’s the nozz?’ The nozz party’s over,” Parker said. “This is just Chapter One.”