LOS ANGELES - Hundreds of law enforcement officers on Friday raided Southern California auto- parts shops and other businesses suspected of illegally selling nitrous oxide as a recreational drug, in what authorities said was the nation's largest such raid ever.
Authorities served search warrants on 17 businesses and nine delivery vehicles during the simultaneous raids in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties.
Edward Valencia, 51, Federico Valencia, 58, and Rose Marie Cuellar, 20, were arrested on misdemeanor charges of misbranding a drug in violation of the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The Valencia brothers work at Victor Welding Supply in South Los Angeles, and Cuellar is an employee of LA Rush, an auto parts store.
"I'm innocent. I haven't done anything wrong," Federico Valencia said as he was led out of his shop in handcuffs.
It was the second time the shop had been raided. In 2009, authorities spoke with the Valencia brothers and owner William Victor about their sales of nitrous oxide and its popular use as a party drug, according to a federal affidavit.
Victor, 65, also was named in an arrest warrant and was being sought.
The raids were the result of a year-and-a-half-long joint investigation dubbed "No Laughing Matter" by the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Criminal Investigations and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
During the operation, federal agents seized 367 tanks or 36,000 pounds of nitrous oxide with a street value of $20 million, said Andre Birotte Jr., U.S. attorney for the Central District of California.
"Our investigation has revealed and uncovered evidence that many of these shops don't contain any auto supplies at all, just tanks of nitrous oxide," Birotte said.
The FDA has recently focused on the illegal use of nitrous oxide, and this was its largest case to date, said special agent Lisa Hartsell.
Though nitrous oxide, also known as "laughing gas" or "nos," has long been a rave phenomenon, it has recently grown into more mainstream use.
"This is a very cheap drug, can be had very easily, it is not a controlled substance, so your big members of the law enforcement community don't have the ability to control it," Hartsell said.
The gas is legally used by dentists for anesthesia, to pressurize whipped cream canisters and to speed up race cars. But authorities say its illegal use has spurred fatal car accidents, rapes and teen deaths - all in the name of a temporary high.
If ingested at high levels, nitrous oxide can cause death from lack of oxygen; it can also lead to spasms, convulsions and other health problems. Nitrous oxide is 310 times more dangerous to the Earth's ozone layer than carbon dioxide, U.S. officials say.