Mom raises awareness of nitrous oxide abuse after tragic Pepperwood accident

An Arcata mom is raising awareness about nitrous oxide abuse after she found cannisters of the gas at the site of the Pepperwood crash where her daughter died.
An Arcata mom is raising awareness about nitrous oxide abuse after she found cannisters of the gas at the site of the Pepperwood crash where her daughter died. Wikimedia commons

Mary Anne Rand was awakened at 2 a.m. by a knock at the door. It was a parent’s worst nightmare, an officer from the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office stood in her Arcata home asking her to identify a small ring that belonged to her daughter Camille.

Camille Rand was in a car accident on U.S. Highway 101, south of Jordan Road with two other people in June 2014.

According to the incident’s traffic report, the Dodge pickup Camille Rand was a passenger in approached the center median and crossed over into the northbound lane. The driver turned left and the steering input caused his vehicle to lose traction. The car slid, rotated counter clockwise, and overturned onto the shoulder of the northbound lane across dirt and gravel east of the roadway before hitting a tree.

While the driver and one other passenger survived, Camille was ejected from the truck in the crash. She sustained major injuries and taken to Redwood Memorial Hospital in Fortuna where she died.

Initially, Mary Anne Rand saw the incident as a terrible tragedy but was informed after her daughter’s funeral that nitrous oxide canisters were found around the crash site.

Rand decided to visit the site where she found 30 canisters of nitrous oxide with more than half of them opened. Prior to Rand’s visit, the CHP reported more than 300 canisters at the crash site.

“This is a bigger problem than people realize. The gas only stays in the bloodstream for a very short amount of time, only minutes, and because of that, use is difficult to prove,” Rand said. “That leaves only the circumstantial evidence.”

According to previous reporting by the Times-Standard, Humboldt County Deputy Coroner Roy Horton said the test is difficult to run because it’s fragile, expensive and requires a blood sample to be immediately frozen and sent out of the area.

Sheriff’s office Lt. Ken Swithenbank, who has worked in Southern Humboldt County for nearly 24 years, said nitrous oxide abuse has been on the rise for the last decade.

“Nitrous oxide has become an epidemic in Southern Humboldt for the last 10 years or so. It’s very prevalent within the area but some claim it’s not an addicting drug,” Swithenbank said. “I’ve dealt with it on a regular basis and I’ve seen people diminish in life and lifestyles. I’ve pulled people over where there are thousands of used containers in their car. People are holding newborn babies and inhaling at the same time.”

Swithenbank also said he’d witnessed prolonged effects of nitrous oxide use, which included some becoming paralyzed.

“It deprives the brain of oxygen so it’s like you’re essentially drowning yourself,” Swithenbank said.

While a typical high from the gas usually lasts no more than a few minutes, continuous use of nitrous oxide can lead to vitamin B12 deficiency and, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Neurophysiology, it has several side effects that alter brain activity.

Abuse of the gas causes it to dissolve in the bloodstream which reduces oxygen flowing into the brain. The oxygen deficiency can cause asphyxiation, loss of consciousness and subsequent brain and organ damage. This can also cause permanent nerve damage.

The driver, who Rand chose not to identify, was not tested for nitrous oxide when officers were on scene.

“Nitrous oxide is also hard to detect in a person’s system. It’s not like a regular DUI because it doesn’t stay in the body long enough. It’s short lived and that makes determining it difficult,” Swithenbank said. “Nitrous oxide is mass produced and the canisters are hard to track. Often times, venders don’t take responsibility for selling the gas knowing people will buy it with the intent to inhale it.”

California has a law pertaining to the unlawful sale of the gas and states that under existing law it is a misdemeanor for any person to possess nitrous oxide or any substance containing it with the intent to breathe, inhale, or ingest for the purpose of causing a condition of intoxication, elation, euphoria, dizziness, stupefaction, or dulling of the senses.

Tami Gruetzmacher, store manager of the Cash and Carry in Eureka, said there isn’t much regulation when it came to selling the substance, but that she takes precautions to ensure it’s not placed in the wrong hands.

“There’s not really any regulation on who buys them,” Gruetzmacher said. “What I do is I make sure anyone buying nitrous oxide has a business license before I sell it to them.”

Swithenbank said as far as enforcement goes, authorities can only prosecute people who are in possession of the substances with the intent to inhale it.

“I’ve never found anyone who was legitimately in possession of these canisters for legal commercial purposes,” he said.

Rand read a victim’s statement in court where the driver was on trial for two felonies — gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, driving under the influence and causing bodily injury — in addition to a misdemeanor for possession of nitrous oxide with the intent to inhale and an infraction of having less than an ounce of marijuana. The driver pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of vehicular manslaughter.

“From what I’ve been told (by District Attorney Investigator Wayne Cox), there have been numerous fatalities in our county believed to be attributable to nitrous oxide use while driving,” Rand said in the statement. “The danger of using nitrous oxide while driving is the potential to pass out. The highway curves to the right just before (the driver) went off the road. The trajectory the truck took is consistent with (him) having lost consciousness.”

There are at least two other documented incidents involving nitrous oxide in Humboldt County.

In May 2012, a driver was arrested with more than 300 charging devices found in their vehicle in Fortuna. In November 2011, two men in their early 20s were killed in an accident where 18 opened nitrous oxide canisters were found on scene. At the time, the Humboldt County coroner’s office noted an increase in the use of nitrous oxide.

“Not only did this end Camille’s life at the young age of 26, it changed the lives of all of us who loved her forever,” Rand said. “Nitrous oxide is a momentary high, but death is very permanent.”

Natalya Estrada can be reached at 707-441-0510.