Frontlines

The lunch-hour drug and other legal highs

Sarah Henry July 2 1979
Frontlines

The lunch-hour drug and other legal highs

Sarah Henry July 2 1979

The lunch-hour drug and other legal highs

Frontlines

CLOSEUP

Sarah Henry

Over the past two years, nitrous oxide (its friends call it laughing gas) has drifted from the dentist’s office to the street below, where it has taken firm root as a popular over-the-counter, counterculture chemical. Its charms include a fleeting but intense euphoria lasting about one minute. It is inexpensive. It is neither habit-forming nor, inhaled in moderation, is it dangerous. But most important, until recently it was legal.

Jack Kwinter, proprietor of a small Toronto “head shop” called The Peanut Gallery, calls nitrous oxide “the drug of the ’70s.” He views it as the ideal mindaltering substance for a hectic, urban environment, where there’s often little time to drop the reins of reality. For just 75 cents, Kwinter would routinely transfer the gas from a small metal canister into a balloon for his customers to inhale right then and there in his store. “We had a lot of businessmen coming in. Say you have a conference in two hours and you want to get high but you don’t want to stay high. You do laughing gas and get devastated for one or two minutes, then you’re straight again.”

But the federal health department wasn’t laughing. In recent weeks, inspectors have paid visits to The Peanut Gallery and dozens of other head shops throughout the country, advising owners of a new regulation prohibiting sale of laughing gas to the public. Anyone caught can be charged (though, so far, none has been) under the Food and Drug Act; in effect, laughing gas has been restored to its traditional territory—primarily dentistry, where it is used as a light anesthetic, and bakeries, where it is used to make whipped cream.

While nitrous oxide seems innocuous enough, health officials argue that anything that blocks the normal flow of oxygen through the body poses potential dangers, chief among them damage to brain cells. Too much laughing gas over an extended period can cause “dullness, forgetfulness and difficulty comprehending,” says Dr. Ian Henderson, director of Ottawa’s bureau of drugs. Predictably, laughing gas enthusiasts view this intervention as just one more example of the continuing struggle between the heads and the feds. “With anything that’s fun, cheap, and legal, the government will step in,” complains Kwinter. “It’s a real shame they felt they had to clamp down on something like this.”

There are several other products sold in drug paraphernalia shops which purport to be legal highs—compelling commodities for a population which recognizes that marijuana won’t be decriminalized in the near future. But most of these substances, with misleading brand names like Opium and Hashish (“pure distillate of wild lettuce” appears in somewhat smaller print), aren’t so much turn-ons as ripoffs—as effective as taking an Aspirin and letting your mind wander.

But there is one exception. Isobutyl nitrite, a close cousin of amyl nitrite, lowers the blood pressure slightly, makes the heart beat faster, causes flushing and relaxes some muscles. Before it was replaced by more effective drugs, amyl nitrite was inhaled by patients with angina pectoris to relieve pain in the heart. But for most of its 95year history, isobutyl nitrite has had no medical application. However, in the past three years, marketed as “liquid incense” by a California firm, called Pacific Western Distributing Corp., under the names Rush, Bolt and LR (which apparently stands for locker room), isobutyl nitrite has gained a considerable following. While the chemical may prompt nausea, headache and even fainting, there is no evidence it represents a significant hazard to health. In any case, since it is ostensibly a room odorizer, it is questionable whether it could be dealt with under any drug regulation.

Sniffed straight from the amber container, Rush and its relatives cause the heart to leap and the head to whirl—not to mention a distinct surge in profits for its San Francisco manufacturers. Pacific Western Chairman W. Jay Freezer, estimates North American retail sales for the industry of $24 million last year.

Isobutyl nitrite’s current vogue can be largely attributed to the sexual mythology that has sprung up around it. Says Henderson: “There have been many reasons given to us—the high feeling, that it prolongs orgasm, that it increases the size of the penis because it affects the blood vessels.” The health department first became aware of the chemical’s popularity 18 months ago when reports came in that some male homosexuals were using it to relax muscles to ease anal intercourse as well as to heighten orgasm. Next, news filtered in that it was being sprayed in a couple of discos in Toronto and Montreal. “We were told by some of the kids that it produced a dizzy feeling that makes them feel very abandoned,” Henderson said, adding that the low concentration in the air would be unlikely to cause any real change. Several months ago, the department had its first real twinge of anxiety when it received word that the “popper” craze had caught on with middle-aged couples. “We became worried that it was getting into an age group where there are heart problems,” says Henderson. “What about a person who has high blood pressure and doesn’t know it? What about someone who has high blood pressure and is taking medication?”

To answer those questions, the chairman of the University of Ottawa’s department of pharmacology, Dr. Radhey Lai Singhal, and associate professor Dr. Michael MacConaill will measure the effects of the commercial isobutyl nitrite on a small group of health volunteers later this summer, then report their findings to the federal government. Singhal says subsequent studies may be set up to examine its effects on animals with coronary artery disease and to determine the likelihood of an adverse reaction when taken with drugs used to treat high blood pressure.