Why People Still Get Down on Whip-Its, Poppers, and Other Legal Highs

Because a shitty buzz is better than no buzz at all?

It’s hard to imagine how Jorge Leonardo Sanchez, a (then) 24-year-old Southern California man, ended up inhaling a massive amount of "whippets" in the driver seat of his car after leading police in a chase on suspicion of drunk driving on live television that ended in a suburban neighborhood outside of Los Angeles. For starters, it was a November 2013 morning.

As Q-Tip brand is to the cotton swab; Kleenex to facial tissue––Whip-It is simply one brand of compressed nitrous oxide tanks. To do whippets is to inhale compressed nitrous oxide and experience a brief high. This toned-down laughing gas is still sold, semi-legally, in smoke shops and across the Internet. Nitrous is most accurately categorized as a grandfathered-in notation on an ever-expanding list of gray-area substances that range from DIY to designer highs and are often experimented with in ways not intended by original manufacturers.

These sometimes-legal psychoactive substances run the geeked-up gamut from bath salts and boner pills to the totally synthetic and usually dangerous, chemical-infused blend of twigs and grass and dirt, being sold as "spice, or "K2," and the pseudo-psychedelic Magic truffles found in Amsterdam coffee shops, shady American head shops, and of course, online. 

Indeed, whippets, salvia, and amyl nitrite "poppers" seemingly trend in and out of the drug culture zeitgeist as party favorites of the day. Each substance satisfies a peculiar craving for a particular sensation; serving its own unique, bottom-fed function. 

"A lot of young people get legal highs, such as whippets, to take, in conjunction with other, possibly not-so-legal drugs, like MDMA," Chris R., tells The KIND. Chris manages an open-late smoke shop in Los Angeles. The store—which sells functional  glass and other drug stuff—is one of many serving up psychoactive substances, "legal highs," to a steadily  L.A. clientele.  

When inhaled directly, nitrous oxide, or a slightly different version huffed out of whipped cream canisterscan elicit feelings of euphoria, lightheadedness, and a brief escape from the here and now. Meanwhile, time and sound seemingly slow to a crawl. Everything vibrates. A simple conversation hits the earbuds like a dubstep bass-line. Your voice gets chopped and screwed. The high lasts for a few minutes, at most. The next morning your head is in pieces. Who knows how you'll feel in 20 years? Or if you'll have a seizure right then and there. 

Most canisters on retail shelves contain a gas that's much like what we're given at the dentist, when we go in for a procedure that we'd rather not be awake for. The laughing gas is sold legally as culinary and medicinal tools (to make whipped cream; to be used as anesthesia).The inhalant inside the tiny canisters is also used in jet fuel. Steve-O, of MTV's Jackass, acclaim, was at one point, allegedly, addicted to doing whippets.

In moderation, with the right setting and people, blasting down a balloon or two is probably pretty fun. But there is not one single thing healthy about inhaling whippets. The narrative surrounding the second most popular drug in the U.K––which banned them outright in 2015––is pretty much the same everywhere: "Noz," and "gas," can be fun, but can also be a bit of trouble, when abused. 

How bad can that bit of trouble be? Let's check the live-broadcast helicopter footage of the above-mentioned, Sanchez–––sucking down, balloon-after-balloon, of nitrous oxide while a blocked stream of morning commuters is diverted to an ever-widening grid of traffic jam. 

"At 11:12 a.m., six police officers with guns drawn approached the vehicle. . .After talking to Sanchez through the passenger-side window, one of the officers fired a low-impact BB round into the car, striking him. Police then swarmed the vehicle. . .One officer smashed in the driver-side window, opened the door and pulled the man to the ground. . .He was handcuffed and taken into custody."

L.A. saw a surge and subsequent crackdown on the substance in 2013. Still, the gas remains as popular as ever, today. Some observers suggest that psychonauts may be drawn to nitrous and similar substances because the chemicals won't show up on a drug test.

"I sold more legal highs while working at a smoke-shop in Indiana than I did on Hollywood Boulevard, in Los Angeles," Brett, an employee of another L.A. head shop, tells The KIND. He believes that access to legal, medical cannabis in California, an option that Indiana whippet enthusiasts just aren't afforded, may be a deterrent to designer drugs and legal highs. 

Salvia (salvia divinornum) is a psychoactive plant that can broken down and concentrated to different levels of potency, and then smoked. It is sold as potpourri, or incense, in most head shops, and online. An herbal cousin of sage, salvia can induce an experience akin to, though not nearly as time-consuming as, psychedelics like LSD. 

Poppers aren't as popular as whippets or salvia, but the little bottled headaches are just as easy to acquire, and perhaps even easier to abuse.

"For the most part, salvia customers were usually people 'experimenting,' and not daily users," Chris R. tells The KIND. "Some people buy it because they've seen it online, or heard about it, and are curious. Other customers have no idea what they're doing, and think of it as spice, just looking for a buzz." Chris concludes: "We don't have many 'return customers' when it comes to salvia." 

The herb is banned in many countries and more than half of the United States, with similar prohibitions being explored around the world. 

From a 2015 VICE report on a potential salvia ban in Canada:

"At present, stores can sell salvia over the counter and online, and it is generally billed as a natural health product. The government has always objected to that, and noted that no strain of salvia had been approved for sale—a requirement for any natural health product—meaning that anyone selling the plant is doing so illegally."

Think of salvia's effects along the lines of a sort of "Diet DMT:" Revelatory, and epiphany-inducing, but definitely not something to do on the daily, or while driving

Which brings us to amyl nitrite "poppers." Sold legally as room deodorizers in the United States, and nearly banned in the U.K., poppers aren't as popular as whippets or salvia, but the little bottled headaches are just as easy to acquire, and perhaps even easier to abuse. 

Image via

Poppers aren't just another means to an intoxicated end. Some users are seeking a desired functionality from the sniffable potions.

From a Gawker primer on poppers

“What [nitrites do] is loosen up all the involuntary muscles (like in the throat and anus) so it's so much easier to get large objects pushed into them. They also make you kind of dizzy and crazy and make every cell in your body scream, 'I want to fuck right now,' at the same time. They also give me a headache and make me want to pass out.”

So far, humans have shown a will to consume drugs as long as there are drugs to consume. Some people seek escape, while others hope for some kind of chemical self-enhancement. And a good portion of people are just looking to get fucked up, with no questions beyond that. "Legal highs" are highs and drugs all the same. They aren't going anywhere, anytime soon, and they have the potency to take you right out of anywhere you might want to be. 

All photos by the author, except where otherwise noted.