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Nitrous oxide is seen at auto parts dealer L.A. Rush in Norwalk on March 22, 2013. The business is suspected of illegally selling nitrous oxide for recreational drug use. (SGVN/Staff photo by Watchara Phomicinda)
A few weeks ago, teams of federal agents and sheriff's deputies fanned out across Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties, searching 17 businesses and arresting three people.

For more than a year, they'd been investigating what they called a massive drug conspiracy involving illegal sales out of front businesses and parties at which scores or hundreds of people got high. The product seized had a street value of about $20 million.

The charges? All misdemeanors.

The feds were investigating not cocaine or methamphetamine, but nitrous oxide, a mood-altering gas people inhale for the euphoric effects.

The relatively minor charges that resulted from the March 22 raid carry a maximum of a year in prison and a $100,000 fine, illustrating the difficulty authorities face in combating a growing substance abuse problem.Nitrous oxide, or "nozz," is a prescription drug whose euphoric high can be addictive, and using it without oxygen mixed in can cause permanent neurological damage.But because it's also a legal product that can be used in medicine or to boost car performance, the penalties are limited even under federal law.

Selling it for ingestion without a prescription is only a federal misdemeanor. And there's almost nothing state or local prosecutors can do if people are of age.

"A 19-year-old can purchase and huff all the nitrous they want, and the person that sells it to them cannot be prosecuted by the state of California," said Joseph O. Johns, who heads environmental prosecutions for the U.S. attorney's office in L.A. "That is a gigantic regulatory gap."

Possessing nitrous with the intent to ingest it (other than in medical or dental uses) is a misdemeanor in California. But intent is difficult to prove.

Until 2009, selling nitrous to anyone was legal under state law. A new law passed that year making it a misdemeanor to sell it to a minor.

The L.A. City Attorney's Office hasn't prosecuted many people on nitrous charges, and a spokeswoman for the L.A. County District Attorney's Office had no record of any prosecutions.

Meanwhile, the problem grows, leading the Sheriff's Department and others to consider a push for stronger legislation.

"I had hoped it would dissipate," said Veronica De Alba, a deputy city attorney in L.A. who helped write the 2009 law and has worked on prevention efforts. "But it just seems to be getting bigger."

Beyond whip-its

Known as "laughing gas," nitrous oxide has been used in medicine and dentistry for more than a century.

Recreational use has been around almost as long: There were "laughing gas parties" at the turn of the last century, said Dr. Sean Nordt, an assistant professor at USC's Keck School of Medicine.

But a nitrous party today is a far cry from the old days of "whip-its" "" cans of whipped cream huffed for the nitrous oxide.

"It's gone from a group of teenagers or college kids sitting around and huffing a half-dozen whip-it canisters to hundreds of kids getting together for a house party centered around a couple of 80-pound cylinders of nitrous," Johns said.

He said the problem has "industrialized" in the past five years as the popularity of the drug has grown and the Internet has made it easier to arrange huge parties.

And true to the laws of economics, shady suppliers have sprung up to meet the demand. Authorities said the businesses raided in March posed as auto shops, but had only a handful of parts for window dressing.

"They were auto shops without any auto parts," L.A. County sheriff's Sgt. Chris Meadows said.

The nitrous canisters are sold in rainbow colors or bright, almost psychedelic hues: lime green or cadmium yellow. Some have Betty Boop or Hello Kitty stickers.

"It's not some middle-aged dude taking his Corvette to the racetrack," Johns said.

The industrial-sized supply has led to industrial-strength use.

"Individuals are essentially huffing one balloon after the other over the course of an evening," Johns said.

That can make the health effects more dangerous as repeated use can lead to nerve damage and loss of motor skills, Nordt said.

In some cases, that has led to young people being unable to grip a pencil or even walk.

"Your brain doesn't like not having oxygen, and once that happens, there's no going back," Nordt said.

If huffed directly from the tank rather than a balloon, nitrous can even cause immediate death. People can suffer a collapsed lung because of the high pressure, and the extremely cold gas can cause potentially fatal vocal cord spasms.

Still, people don't often end up in emergency rooms because of the direct health effects, since those usually take longer to show up.

"It's usually, 'Hey, they were high and they got hit by a bus,' " Nordt said.

'Parents?'

When an L.A. County sheriff's team started monitoring Facebook regularly, deputies were surprised by the number of parties that openly advertised nozz.

"We didn't realize how bad it was until we started monitoring the social media and seeing that these parties were just all over the place," said Meadows, who heads the department's Electronic Communications Triage team.

Over this year's spring break, right after the huge raid, authorities said they saw a flurry of parties involving teens with spare time.

On March 30 alone, deputies went to six parties advertised online with nitrous, along with illegal drugs and alcohol. The number startled even them.

"Parents?" a Sheriff's Department spokesman wondered on Twitter.

The problem has been seen all over: in Los Angeles, including the San Fernando Valley, in East L.A., in the Antelope Valley and elsewhere, Meadows said.

Years ago, there were "flier" parties, advertised on glossy postcards, De Alba said.

"What's happened now is that Facebook has really enabled the parties to become even bigger and to be set up at a faster pace," she said.

Nozz parties usually have a cover charge, plus $5 or so per balloon of nitrous.

"It's like going to Knott's Berry Farm and having to buy $8 popcorn, I guess," Meadows said. "You still have to pay to get in."

Sometimes people pass out after using nitrous, and young girls have been sexually assaulted while unconscious, Meadows said.

The federal violations are investigated by the Food and Drug Administration's criminal agents under a law that forbids misbranding a drug.

Johnson said there have been few if any prior federal prosecutions, but he said the office is using "imperfect tools" to try to step into a regulatory gap.

Meadows said stiffer laws would not only punish offenders, but would send a message and perhaps prevent people from using in the first place. "I think because it's not heavily regulated or a felony, people think it's more tolerable socially," Meadows said. "So I think there's that perception that it's not as dangerous because there's no laws protecting people from it. "