Law enforcement officials fanned out across the Southland Friday, making arrests and raiding auto parts stores and other businesses suspected of dealing in nitrous oxide -- an inhalant ostensibly offered as an engine booster, but frequently sold as a party drug known as "noz."
Authorities arrested three people on misdemeanor charges and served search warrants on 17 businesses and nine delivery vehicles during raids in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties. A fourth person, 65-year-old William Victor of Northridge, was being sought by authorities.
The operation was the result of a 15-month investigation dubbed "No Laughing Matter" by the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Criminal Investigations and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
The FDA has lately cracked down on the illegal use of nitrous oxide, also known as "laughing gas," which has lawful uses in dentistry and in whipped cream dispensers.
Two criminal complaints filed in Los Angeles federal court allege that the four defendants -- as well as storefronts across the Southland -- engaged in "misbranding" of nitrous oxide because they are distributing the compound for personal use without a prescription and in containers that do not include proper warning labels.
"Nitrous oxide is a dangerous inhalant when used for recreational purposes, and we want the public, especially parents, to be aware of its abuse by our youth," U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. said. "We also want those who choose to profit from the sale of nitrous oxide as a recreational drug to know that law enforcement is on your trail."
Nitrous -- commonly called "noz" by users -- is inhaled at raves and other events from balloons that are filled from large, compressed tanks.
During the past year, several teenagers in the Los Angeles area have been killed in car accidents linked to the use of nitrous, according to court records.
Sales of nitrous oxide as a drug have dramatically increased in Southern California over the past five years, according to the Los Angeles Sheriffâ€™s Department.
While the prescription drug has legitimate uses, such as in anesthesia, it is also used to create a temporary, euphoric "rush." At high and prolonged exposure levels, nitrous is an asphyxiant that can cause death from a lack of oxygen.
One criminal complaint charges three defendants associated with Victor Welding Supply on East 58th St. in South Los Angeles. Of the three, two defendants were arrested at the welding supply operation.
Those charged are:
-- Edward Valencia, 51, of Lynwood, who was arrested; and
-- Federico Valencia, 58, of South Los Angeles, who was arrested.
The third defendant arrested today -- Rose Marie Cuellar, 20, of Florence-Graham -- is an employee of L.A. Rush, which operates stores in Norwalk and Huntington Park.
The federal charge of misbranding a drug carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.