Legal Dictionary


Nitrous Oxide

Nitrous Oxide, commonly referred as Laughing Gas or N2O, is a non-flammable colorless gas with a slight sweet odor and taste used primarily by dentists as an anesthetic or painkiller for surgical procedures. Racecar mechanics add Nitrous Oxide to carburetors to make the cars go faster. Restaurants mix it under pressure with cream to make instant whipped cream. It is also used in food preservation and in rocket fuels.

When inhaled, Nitrous Oxide causes people to feel relaxed or happy. Inhaling a lot of Nitrous Oxide can produce euphoria or hallucinations. It impairs a person's judgment and makes him or her more suggestible. Some users become violent or are involved in traffic accidents. Inhaling enough of it can cause unconsciousness and death. Death usually results from asphyxiation (suffocation).

Possessing or selling Nitrous Oxide for legitimate business reasons is not illegal. However, selling or using Nitrous Oxide to get high is illegal in California. Drug dealers sell it in small balloons, sometimes called "whippets." Although the drug was known to be popular at "raves," the police did not often arrest people for using or possessing it. Recently, however, federal and state authorities have begun to crack down on unlawful use of this gas.

California Law

California and Federal law make it illegal to use Nitrous Oxide as a recreational drug, i.e. to get high. The laws criminalizing Nitrous Oxide are different from the laws regulating other illegal drugs such as cocaine, heroin, or marijuana.

California Penal Code section 381b makes it a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six (6) months in county jail, to possess Nitrous Oxide with the intent to inhale it and get high. It is also a misdemeanor to be under the influence of Nitrous Oxide deliberately, unless the gas was administered for medical, surgical, or dental care by a licensed person, such as a dentist. Selling or giving Nitrous Oxide to someone under age 18 is illegal, unless the gas is in a food product like whipped cream or by a licensed doctor or dentist (California Penal Code section 382c). A business can lose its state license if convicted twice of selling Nitrous Oxide to a minor.

Most of the Federal laws about illegal drugs are concerned with drugs such as cocaine, heroin, prescription tranquilizers and painkillers. Federal law categorizes these drugs as "controlled substances" and regulates their possession and sale. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) enforces the laws governing these drugs. Nitrous Oxide is not a controlled substance. Unlike heroin, for example, it is legal to possess Nitrous Oxide, so long as it is for a legitimate purpose. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), not the DEA, enforces the regulations governing Nitrous Oxide. Under regulations of the FDA (Food Drug & Cosmetics Act), specifically the "misbranding" clauses, it is illegal to sell or distribute Nitrous Oxide for human consumption purposes without a valid medical prescription. It is prosecuted as a Federal misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in federal prison and a fine of $100,000.

Nitrous Oxide can also be a component of other crimes. Driving a car while under the influence of Nitrous Oxide is unlawful. Nitrous Oxide is sometimes used to commit a sexual assault by making the victim too stupefied to resist. Such sexual assaults are a form of rape.

If you or someone you know has been arrested or charged with possession of Nitrous Oxide, consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney before speaking to anyone from law enforcement. It is critical that you obtain qualified attorneys to help fight your charges.