Federal and local law enforcement arrested three people Friday and executed search warrants at 17 locations across Los Angeles and Orange counties and the Inland Empire as part of an investigation into sales of nitrous oxide commonly known as laughing gas.
Agents with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said the men accused, from Northridge, Lynwood and South Los Angeles, were selling the inhalant ostensibly as a "booster" in sports cars but in reality they were allegedly distributing nitrous oxide solely for recreational drug use.
"Nitrous oxide is being sold by stores across Southern California that purport to sell the gas for welding or car racing applications, but in fact are merely distributing a drug used by young people at rave-style parties," federal Department of Justice officials said in a statement distributed Friday afternoon.
A criminal complaint charged defendants associated with Victor Welding Supply on East 58th Street in South Los Angeles, justice officials said.
Two were arrested Friday afternoon at Victor Welding:
- Edward Valencia, 51, of Lynwood, associated with Victor Welding.
- Federico Valencia, 58, of South Los Angeles, associated with Victor Welding.
- Rose Marie Cuellar, 20, of Florence-Graham - is an employee of LA Rush, Inc., which operates stores in Norwalk and Huntington Park.
- William Victor, 65, of Northridge, was being sought by authorities.
According to a criminal complaint and an 82-page affidavit signed by Special Agent Lisa Hartsell with the federal Food and Drug Administration, between April 3, 2009, and Nov. 23, 2012, William Victor, Edward Valencia and Federico Valencia dispensed nitrous oxide, a prescription drug, without prescriptions and without required labeling.
Other businesses named in the affidavit were in communities including Gardena, North Hills, Carson, Garden Grove, South Gate, Santa Ana, Cerritos, Corona, Riverside, Norwalk, Huntington Park and Los Angeles.
"Nitrous oxide is a dangerous prescription drug that is inhaled by recreational users," typically from balloons that are filled from metal cylinders containing the compressed gas, federal officials said.
"The drug can cause many significant and debilitating side effects, including, in extreme cases, death," federal officials said "During the past year, several adolescents in the Los Angeles region have been killed in car accidents linked to the use of nitrous oxide, and acts of violence have been associated with the inhalation or sale of the drug."
Sales of nitrous oxide as a drug have "dramatically increased" in Southern California over the past five years, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Criminal complaints allege the four defendants and storefronts in L.A. and Orange counties and the Inland Empire engaged in "misbranding" of nitrous oxide "because they are distributing nitrous oxide for personal use without a prescription and in containers that do not include proper warning labels," federal officials said.
The prescription drug has legitimate uses, such as an anesthesia. But its use by people seeking quick rushes and giddiness can have severe consequences.
"At high and prolonged exposure levels, nitrous oxide is an asphyxiant that can cause death from a lack of oxygen," federal officials said. "The illegal use of nitrous oxide can also lead to spasms, convulsions and other health problems."
The sheriff's Electronic Communication Unit, which observes open source social media sites from the Sheriff's Headquarters Bureau, has located more than 350 illegal parties that openly advertised nitrous oxide on social media, Sheriff Lee Baca said Friday.
"The businesses that were targeted today sell a dangerous product that perpetrates violent assaults, sexual assaults, juvenile fatalities and overdoses," Baca said.
In addition to the four arrests, authorities Friday executed federal search warrants at 17 businesses and on nine delivery vehicles.
The ongoing investigation, called "Operation No Laughing Matter," was being conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Office of Criminal Investigations and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.