Drug agents from the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Department say they're seeing a disturbing new trend among high school kids trying to get high.
Teens are inhaling nitrous oxide or what's commonly referred to as laughing gas when used at the dentist office.
But rather than inhaling the gas while getting a cavity filled, teens are getting high off the gas at rave parties and even in the parking lots of their schools, Sheriff's Sgt. Darren Carr said.
The teens obtain nitrous oxide canisters that resemble CO2 cartridges, Carr said.
Artificial whipped cream cannisters have nitrous oxide cartridges inside to propel out the whipped cream. Teens looking to get high will commonly empty the whipped cream and inhale the nitrous oxide, Carr said. The street name for these cannisters is crackers.
The problem is growing especially among the younger students, Carr said.
Skyline High School Assistant Principal Ike Spencer said he and other school officials couldn't figure out why they were finding so many of the metal cannisters by the school's tennis courts.
Drug agents told them the kids were going out there between classes to "take a hit."
The other place nitrous oxide is making a regular appearance is at underground rave parties.
Teens commonly take empty balloons to the parties and pay to have them filled with nitrous oxide, Carr said. They then inhale the gas all night. The street name for these balloons is "whippets."
The gas gives the user a temporary euphoric feeling, Carr said. The difference between obtaining it at a rave and from the dentist, however, is that the dentist is a professional administering the dosage.
At a rave everyone receives the same amount.
"These guys just fill a balloon and give it to a 100-pound female or a 200-pound guy," Carr said.
Drug dealers are taking advantage of this growing trend to get high off nitrous oxide.
Four large cannisters of the gas were stolen Tuesday from Timpanogos Hospital in Orem.
Orem Police Lt. Doug Edwards said the $150 tanks were stored outside the main hospital in a fenced area. Chain link and barbed wire were cut to grab the tanks, he said.
Reports of stolen nitrous oxide are becoming common. A tank of the gas also was taken last month from an Orem dentist's office. Burglars gained entrance by smashing the glass on the front door, Edwards said.
In Salt Lake City, small cannisters of nitrous oxide are being sold at head shops, Carr said. Dealers are finding their supply of nitrous oxide at restaurant supply companies, he said.
Utah lawmakers passed a bill this past legislative session that makes it a class A misdemeanor to possess nitrous oxide for the purpose of getting high, said Carr. But selling the gas is legal.
The more school administrators learned about crackers, whippets and raves, the more they realized there were signs of drug use at their schools that they didn't recognize, Spencer said.
Most parents, he said, are finding out the same thing.
"The light comes on and parents say, 'We have those in our home,' " Spencer said. One parent told Spencer her child was having rave parties in her basement every weekend and she didn't know it.
"She said she thought they were just dancing," Spencer said.
That prompted Skyline officials to conduct a workshop with county drug agents to train teachers and administrators on how to spot signs of nitrous oxide or other club drugs.
In an effort to educate students and parents about the dangers of raves, Skyline will host a rave awareness meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.
Many teens who inhale nitrous oxide and other club drugs don't realize what they're doing is harmful.
"Students don't think of it as drugs. They say it makes them feel better," Spencer said.
But Carr said inhaling nitrous oxide is no different from sniffing paint or glue.
"Kids will always find items that are legally sold and abuse them to get high," Carr said.
Contributing: Jeff Haney