Nitrous Oxide Use Leads to Tragic Folsom Crash

As a Sacramento injury law firm, we often speak about the dangers of driving under the influence. When people hear the phrase “driving under the influence,” their minds quickly jump to drunk drivers. If pushed, people will recall that the phrase can also include drivers impaired by illegal drugs or even the abuse of prescription medicines such as oxycontin. A report in The Sacramento Bee this week is a harsh reminder that a DUI involving legally obtained drugs can also have tragic consequences.

According to District Attorney Caroline Park, Michael Dean Sharp purchased fifty canisters of nitrous oxide from a Folsom smoke shop on the night of January 7. The product was sold under the brand name “Whip-It”. Sharp opened a canister, filled a balloon with the gas, and inhaled the substance. After using the drug, Sharp got into his Ford Explorer and drove off, heading southbound on Folsom Boulevard. Travelling at sixty miles per hour, he swerved across a double yellow line and narrowly missed hitting two cars. Sharp then collided with a Saturn driven by Christopher Stephen Ohlander Martell (age thirty-seven). Both Martell and his brother, front-seat passenger Robert Todd Ohlander (age thirty-two), died in the crash. A backseat passenger, Bronson Chapman, suffered serious injury.

On Thursday, Sharp appeared before Judge Geoffrey Goodman of Sacramento Superior Court. He admitted to two counts of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, for the deaths of the brothers, as well as a third count for driving under the influence and causing great bodily injury, representing the third passenger. Judge Goodman set sentencing for August 31. Officials suggest that Judge Goodman will likely sentence Sharp to serve a term of nine years and eight months in state prison. According to D.A. Park, that would also have been the likely sentence had the case proceeded to trial.

There is growing concern about the use of nitrous oxide as a recreational drug. The gas, which is colorless and has a slightly sweet smell, has several legal uses including in dental/medical practices, as a propellant in food products like whipped cream, and even boosts engine performance for auto racers. Recreational users can purchase the gas easily at smoke shops or get it out of a can of whipped cream. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), over 12 million users have tried nitrous oxide, making it the nation’s most used recreational inhalant.

Users experience a short-term, euphoric high as a result of oxygen deprivation. After that stage passes, users can feel relaxed and may have a lowered pain threshold. Negative, often dangerous, side effects also occur including slurred speech, auditory/visual hallucinations, trouble walking, lack of balance, confusion, and potential loss of consciousness. Physical injuries can stem from these impairments, including serious falls and even concussions. Asphyxiation is a very serious risk because the gas takes up too much space in the lungs, leading to a depletion of the oxygen supply. This can cause seizures and lack of consciousness, which is particularly dangerous because vomiting is also a common side effect and an unconscious user may choke. Death can occur, even with a first-time user. Use can also cause nerve and organ damage as well as damage to the parts of the brain responsible for general awareness and episodic memory.

Nitrous oxide has many uses, but misuse of the gas can be dangerous and even fatal. Substance abuse education should be expanded to include the dangers of the gas. We also urge communities to consider banning the sale of Whip-Its and other forms of nitrous oxide clearly aimed at recreational users.

Many substances, including nitrous oxide, can render a user dangerous behind the wheel. Whether the accident stemmed from alcohol or drugs, whether the substance was obtained illegally or purchased in a store, our team is available to assist victims injured in DUI car accidents in Sacramento and throughout Northern California.

See Related Blog Posts:
Repeat DUI Offender Injures Two People and Kills Four Pets
The Danger of Mixing Drugs and Driving