LOS ANGELES Los Angeles County authorities say the use of nitrous oxide has grown from a rave party drug to mainstream recreational use, fueled in part by social media.
They say the drug -- known as "noz," "whip-its," or "whippets" -- has spurred fatal car accidents, rapes and teen deaths, all in the name of a temporary high that lasts just a few minutes and costs just a few dollars.
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 department over the last six months to monitor and identify such illegal activities around the clock. The team has found that many of these public posts advertise alcohol and illegal drugs such as nitrous oxide and that their targets are 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.
Nitrous oxide is legal for dental work and is mixed with oxygen to produce "laughing gas." The food industry uses it in whipped cream container,s and it's used as a propellant for racecar drivers.
Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, explained to CBSNews.com that when people inhale the canister and siphon the gas -- often through a balloon -- they may experience an "out of body" state, with extreme euphoria.
But the drug can also be deadly. He noted that when given therapeutically, like in a dentist's office, nitrous oxide is given with oxygen because the gas displaces the oxygen, leading to buildup of carbon dioxide. High levels of carbon dioxide could lead to respiratory problems, sleepiness, loss of consciousness, seizures, or worse.
"If you are frequently abusing it, there is a chance you may pass out and not wake up," said Glatter.
Long-term use can lead to neurologic problems like numbness or tingling in the fingers and toes, with some evidence suggesting chronic abuse leads to formation of "dark holes" in brain tissue, associated with lack of oxygen and death of brain cells, he added.
The nitrous parties can be very lucrative for those provisioning them, officials said.
Sheriff's deputies are currently 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. 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 such nitrous oxide-related illegal 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, he added.
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 that the department is working on legislation to increase the penalties. He 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."