WHAT ARE WHIPPETS?
Whippets are cartridges, sold under the guise of being a ‘grocery item’ in gas stations, convenience stores, party stores and online. So what are whippets used for and what should you know about them? This item is a metal cartridge about 3 inches long, containing nitrous oxide. They are meant to be used in commercial whipped cream dispensers. The dispensers use a nitrous oxide cartridge to infuse with cream to produce those white fluffy clouds to top off desserts. What could be the harm?
Maybe you’ve never heard any of the slang terms that are slang for nitrous oxide or the more familiar laughing gas that dentists use: Whippets, Whip its, Nos, Nangs, Buzz Bome, Hippy Crack. Many residents of Southwest Detroit had never heard these terms either, so they didn’t know what to call the metal cylinders that started showing up by the thousands as litter on city streets and parking lots. It also went unnoticed when gas stations began selling these mysterious cartridges. In 2020 Southwest Detroit was going to suddenly discovered a surprising infiltration of a new drug trend. In most of this article the term whippets will be the reference used. I beg the reader to begin to think of whippets however as poison sold for human consumption.
WHAT IS IN WHIPPETS?
Do you collect kitchen gadgets? Even the most gadget devotee doesn’t have a commercial style dispenser for making whipped cream. The dispensers are a staple for restaurants and infuse a burst of nitrous oxide from a cartridge with heavy cream to produce a puffy cloud of whipped cream. However, don’t confuse whippets with ready-to-serve whipped cream cans sold in grocery stores, as they are not the same. Why are gas stations selling whippet cartridges when the dispenser they are meant to refill is not a household item? Enter the world of inhalant abuse.
Whippets, (sometimes spelled whippits or whip its) – the term given to the steel cartridges filled with nitrous oxide are used to get high. If nitrous oxide has a familiar ring, you likely recognize it as ‘laughing gas’ a common and safe dental anesthetic. On the street the cartridges are termed whippets, nitro, hippy crack, N20, NOS, buzz bomb and balloons. But wait, these are supposed to be to refill the dispensers, right?
Sold in gas stations, convenience and party stores in cartons of 25, 50 and even tanks with 100 hits, the nitrous oxide contents are being used as an inhalant to get “high”. If it sounds like this misuse is not too risky know that long term neurological changes in the brain can be the outcome. Even a short 5-minute high impairs motor skills. Google ‘deadly car accidents under the influence of nitrous oxide to learn scope of risk. Because the high lasts only minutes, too often users inhale incessantly and significantly deprive the brain of oxygen.
Now that we have established that few if any reading this possess a commercial style whipped cream dispenser, the question arises as to why they are sold as a convenience item anywhere? Well, money is involved and there is a demand for all the wrong reasons.
WHIPPETS USED AS A RECREATIONAL DRUG=POISON
Picture youth gathered outside a gas station or convenience store where whippets are sold. Remember that ‘risky behavior magnet’ is wired into their brain. Right there out in the open is a product in bright colors with alluring images on the carton, sold for one reason – to get high.
The short high, lasting just minutes after inhaling, invites repeatedly inhaling the N2O. With little pause in between huffing, the gas floods the brain and robbing it of oxygen. Everyone knows brain cells die when deprived of oxygen. Imagine depriving the brain of oxygen over and over again.
Couple this with The Alcohol and Drug Foundation study showing that low body weight in adolescents and teens increases the ‘nitrous oxide dosage’. Youth never learn of that warning. It is a ‘one size fits all’ mindset when youth are experimenting with whippets. This is evidenced by the thousands of cartridges discarded on streets and parking lots after a weekend of driving around ‘partying’.
A PERFECT STORM OF DRUG ABUSE IS BREWING
An article in Deadline Detroit reveals that since the high is short, teens don’t have to fear their parents noticing. Youth don’t realize the true danger so the combination is a perfect storm of circumstances. Even adults are ill-informed about inhalant abuse.-
Long-term misuse has resulted in organ damage, seizures, comas, hallucinations, vitamin B-12 deficiency, and even death. Not only does inhalant abuse make it harder for the lungs to absorb oxygen, but it also impacts the heart, liver, and kidneys. Symptoms of distress include difficulty breathing and a dangerous decrease in blood pressure.
While there are thousands of household products with the potential for inhalant misuse, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration reports whippets are the most commonly abused inhalant. Their prevalence of use outnumbers gasoline, lighter fluid, glue, spray paint and computer dusters. In the past two years, inhalant misuse from 8th graders increased 64% over prior years according to the University of Michigan’s 2020 Monitoring the Future Study. That statistic should concern parents and educators everywhere. It is reminiscent of the explosion of vaping where there was over an 80% increase over prior year and vaping was termed an epidemic.
THE ‘STORM’ IMPACTS THE ENVIRONMENT
Increasingly, whippets are a growing problem in Southwest Detroit. In less than a month, the Southwest Detroit Whippet Wipe Out Campaign cleaned up over 25,000 whippets cartridges from streets and parking lots.
Frank Venegas Jr., the CEO of Ideal Group and instigator of the Whippet Wipeout Campaign, states that “as a community, we have a growing concern about the volume of whippets being used by residents who are breathing in nitrous oxide from whipped cream dispensers to get high. This behavior is incredibly dangerous – and can be fatal in some instances.”
The environmental hazard called for immediate action. Venegas goes on to state, “This creates a public safety issue when thousands of empty cartridges are littering our streets and parking lots. These small whippets get into tires and cause flats, blow-outs and are a danger to pedestrians, cyclists, and those traveling on scooters.”
Long known for a commitment to the community via the shared bounty of their Cadillac Urban Gardens‘ , the Ideal Group was able to put out a ‘call to action’ that generated a huge response. Venegas explains, “We formed this coalition to engage and educate our community about the public health and safety issues created by whippets.”
SOUTHWEST DETROIT PUTS A PUBLIC-EYE ON WHIPPETS
CANDLE, Inc., known for alerting communities to drug trends led the Whippet Wipeout Education Committee during 2021. Christopher Lara, a volunteer from Ideal Group, was interviewed to talk about the whippet issue in Southwest Detroit.
LEGISLATIVE STEPS TO REDUCE AVAILABILITY
Convenience stores, party stores, gas stations and some dispensaries carry whippets even though, if you surveyed the households in a 10 block area, it would be unlikely that even one household would have the commercial grade dispenser that requires the replenishment of a nitrous oxide charger. To understand the scale of the problem in Detroit the Detroit Department of Health engaged volunteers to call area gas stations to learn that 20% of those visited carried whippets. If there was staffing to conduct a more extensive survey it would reveal that some marijuana dispensaries and party stores were selling whippets.
A proposal was presented to Detroit City Council to regulate sales with a companion change .org appeal. At the Michigan state level, Senator Stephanie Chang introduced SB855 that categorizes whippets as drug paraphernalia. Channel 7 TV News interviewed Senator Chang and detailed the issue as well as the progress toward solutions.
California has led the way in legislation. The town of Rialto, CA was the first city in the nation to ban the sale of nitrous oxide. In March 2017, Rialto Mayor Pro Tem Ed Scott praised the measure citing the death of his 17-year-old son Myles Edward Scott who died in a car accident in 2014 while riding with a driver high on nitrous oxide. At the federal level, The Myles Edward Scott Act (HR 3470) was introduced by Representative Norma Torres on May 25, 2021.
Other states are getting onboard. New York Senator Joseph P. Addabbo, Jr. successfully introduced legislation, called the Addabbo Bill (S.2819-A) that prohibits sale of whipped cream chargers to persons under the age of 21 became law in 2021. It was also championed in the Assembly by Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato.
After the ‘Addabbo Law’ went into effect, news headlines coming out of New York wrongly stated that the law prohibited the sale of grocery store whipped cream to minors. While the headlines, “New York Bans Sales of Whipped Cream to Minors” grabbed a lot of attention it was far from accurate. A New York Post article later clarified the law as it applied to the whippet N2O canisters. The mistake by so many news outlets was likely due in part to reporters being unfamiliar with the term whippets or whippits. The fact that whippets are so available at gas stations and convenience stores was probably unknown as well.
EXISTING LAWS NEED UPDATED
While half of the states have laws that ban the use, possession or distribution of inhalants, the laws are broadly defined or apply only to minors or driving under the influence. It takes the concerted efforts of concerned citizens to inspire legislation that meets the needs of communities where these trends develop.
In fluorescent-lit smoke shops, mini-marts, gas stations and convenience stores youth make their experimental choice. Picture a 14 year old rationalizing that, “It must be safe if it is sitting right here on a shelf.” The phrase ‘Gas Station Heroin‘ is a fitting description for the problem of ever-emerging poisonous substances poised to negatively impact an unsuspecting community. It takes years before these seemingly legit products are be revealed as having only one purpose – to get high.
It was gas stations that introduced synthetic marijuana or spice around 2012. It became mainstream before laws could catch up with this previously unknow plant-like material sold as ‘incense’. The seemingly harmless ‘incense-poser’ was actually being smoked. Now synthetic marijuana, also known as spice or K2 is banned in all 50 states. It has now evolved into a street drug.
The environment hazard has not been addressed and calls to the EPA didn’t offer solutions. The group in Detroit gathering up thousands of the cartridges has a hazardous waste issue on their hands, that no one has answers to yet. Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas that is 310 times more dangerous to the ozone layer than carbon dioxide. This situation begs for an industry regulation that requires methods for collection and safe disposal. Southwest Detroit’s Whippet Wipeout Campaign leads the way in safety and developed a training for the safe collection of whippets.
Nitrous oxide training is needed for first responders. In areas where whippets have developed a stronghold, soon canisters appear that equal the contents of 100 whippets. The problem can easily escalate to tanks of N2O that pose a unique risk in the event of a fire or transportation incident. For over a decade Los Angeles has battled the problem of illegal N2O tanks. In an early bust, 367 tanks of nitrous oxide were seized with a street value of 20 million. Shops involved claimed to be auto supply shops but only had one product – N2O. This is something to think about the next time you attend an outdoor concert where they are selling balloons from an N2O tank in plain sight.
TAIWAN CHANGES NITROUS OXIDE FROM FOOD PRODUCT TO FOOD ADDITIVE
Taiwan just may be the leader to follow in regulating nitrous oxide. As of January 2022, nitrous oxide is no longer considered a food product in Taiwan. Now it is termed a food additive. Taiwan food manufacturers must now be licensed before they can use the gas in any food products. In addition, products containing the gas must clearly label the ingredient. Purity is also regulated to 99%, up from 97% previously required. Stiff fines are imposed for companies not in compliance as reported on Taiwan TV news. The United States would do well to follow Taiwan’s lead.
WHIPPET DISCARDS ON YOUR STREETS – TAKE ACTION
If whippets start trending in your community, the issue may go unnoticed until someone explains what the litter really is. It will be hard to mobilize the community until they learn what is truly happening. Flyers explaining not only the cartridges, but also the paraphernalia that accompanies abusing nitrous oxide from the cartridges will be important to share. Follow the flyer example from Southwest Detroit to create your own informational piece. If you are willing to take a step further, plug in the coffee pot and discuss if with immediate members of the community impacted. Then if a collaborative effort is the best course, visit the tried and true method to organize and include someone from each of the 12 Sectors of the Community .
SIGNS OF WHIPPET DRUG ABUSE…
Whippet abuse can manifest as weakness, balance problems, numbness, memory loss, mood changes, paranoia, and delusions. These are signs for parents to take notice of if they suspect their child is experimenting. Other clear signs of whippet abuse are the discards: metal cartridges, balloons, and cracker devices. Cracker devices, pictured below, are used to pierce the cartridges. Their mere presence alone indicates only one purpose.
ARTIST INVITING OUR YOUTH TO RISK IT ALL?
It is especially troubling when music celebrities normalize getting high. Gunna, a famous rap artist, has used whippets in videos and photos during the 2020 pandemic. This did upset some fans who tweeted “they thought he was better than that”. How many others accepted the invitation to get high? When you add a beat and lyrics that normalize drug use, the invitation is really for the listener to ‘risk it all’.
DJ Booth, a popular music critic, interviewed Gunna about his new album a few days before his controversial whippets video debut. Soon after, the critic deleted the interview condoning whippets. Because youth are influenced by popular artists, it is a danger to public health for artists to glorify drug abuse in their music and videos.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry is quite concerned about the influence of artists on teenagers and the glamorization of drug and alcohol abuse. Artists like Gunna have the ability to impact an entire generation’s values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.
TRENDING BIGGER IS BETTER…
Marketing of larger ‘more efficient’ N20 canisters uses creative means to normalize using the gas. Ads feature the the allure of a beach scene with fruity cocktails in hand. Cocktails that can only be enhanced by a burst from a plus size whippet canister are suggested. Blogs feature ‘recipes’ to mix nitrous oxide in drinks further normalizing use. As if taking a cue from e-cigarettes, flavor drops are available. One brand offers a chance to win an exotic trip. These products boast the assurance that their nitrous oxide is 100% made in Europe, has 80x more capacity and is of ‘food grade’ quality. The ability to still label whip it canisters as a food product offers protection for what is obviously sold as a drug. A better description would be sold as poison.
NOS INFUSED COCKTAILS ARE NO LAUGHING MATTER…
Recipes picturing frothy, foamy cocktails infused with N2o gas offer an alluring way to consume nitrous oxide. Laguna Treatment cautions that since both alcohol and nitrous oxide are sedatives there is an increased risk for respiratory depression and loss of consciousness. The ‘laughing gas’ drug proves not to be a sure bet to counteract the feelings of depression often associated with drinking alcohol. Read more on the dangers of mixing nitrous oxide in this informative guide researched by Laguna Treatment. The effort to counteract the sedative effects of alcohol with caffeine concentration also proved to be a risky venture. Using one drug to counteract another will always pose increased risk.
WHAT YOU CAN SHARE TO EDUCATE ABOUT INHALANTS
It is often hard to make the consequences of substance abuse seem real in the days or hours spent deciding on whether to experiment. There is a temptation to rationalize in all the common ways – everyone’s doing it, I’m just going to try it once or how bad can it be when my friends look okay. The nonprofit CANDLE, Inc., a leader in innovative drug prevention, put real life experiences from persons who inhaled N2O into one narrated fictional account – based on real circumstances. Listen to the unmasking of the neurological symptoms and damage that all too many are actually suffering through in the narrated account called ‘My Story’.
Educators or parents may want to use an interactive course to relate the harms of inhalants. Drugfreeworld.org offers a course on ‘The Truth About Inhalants‘. While drug education is always important, when a substance like an inhalant poses a danger, it can be difficult to get your head wrapped around the risks. Thousands of household products enhance our daily living and sit on top of our vanity or are under the sink. Hairspray, deodorant and compressed air keyboard cleaners are aerosol sprays that have claimed lives even. The fumes from gasoline, glue and solvents are other examples. Before reading this blog, you may have never known of these household products that are abused. The same is true for our children – until a classmate demonstrates the ‘fun’ of abusing an inhalant. How would your child ever assess this behavior as dangerous? There is more help and access to prevention tools on inhalants and other drugs in an online drug glossary
To address drug use in general, as well as specific drug trends, educating families is recommended. The parent/child evidence-based program called Reality Tour engages the community in prevention and strengthens families. In a world where drugs are ever-emerging, this prevention program has designed a way for communities to always be current with drug trends and always have a drug prevention program coming up on the community calendar. Isn’t this what every community needs now?
For educators in Detroit, CANDLE, Inc. created a toolkit that provides a collection of drug-prevention resources to start with. Access is provided below.
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