February 25: Juneau Empire on huffing:

Posted: Monday, February 26, 2001

It's hard to know what to do about huffing, the dangerous practice in which teens and preteens inhale the fumes of paints, solvents, hairsprays and other products in order to produce a drug-like high.

Regardless of their backgrounds or socio-economic status, kids tend to experiment. They have been told that they can get burned by playing with fire -- in its literal and equivalent forms. But some kids have to feel the pain for themselves.

Alcohol and other drugs, sex, fast-driving are just some of the ritual temptations. Instinctively, many of us know the limits, even as children.

Fortunately, most of us survive our youthful encounters. But the limits are not always recognized. Our tempters are not always forgiving. Experiments on the wild side sometimes end tragically.

One of the most unforgiving tempters is huffing. It can be addictive and fatal. But even a single episode can produce irreversible brain damage. As the practice has spread in the number of users and as the age of users has crept down into the elementary grades, there is an increasing sense of urgency to respond in informative and preventive ways.

Rep. Mary Kapsner, a Bethel Democrat, last week began a push to call attention to the problem. She urged her fellow lawmakers to make huffing illegal and to permit the justice system to place inhalant abusers in rehab -- even against their will.

It is a controversial proposal that would make criminals of 8-year-olds caught sniffing paint. Kapsner says as things stand now, authorities cannot do much if they encounter children huffing because the practice, though destructive, is not illegal. It seems, however, that schools, families, teams, clubs and after-school groups all have rules about permissible behavior and penalties for violations.

Does an 8-year-old who slips behind the garage and lights up a cigarette deserve a ticket, a fine, a criminal record and a forced stint in rehab?

Do we take a different approach if the 8-year-old somehow obtained marijuana and smokes that instead of tobacco?

If five 11-year-olds sip samples from the liquor cabinet on a Saturday when one child's parents are out of town, do we give them tickets and require them to attend an AA meeting?

Are these family matters or issues of public safety requiring the intervention of the criminal justice system?

Kapsner wants to spare children the unintended but possibly permanent harm that can result from a youthful experiment. For that she deserves recognition. But the ideas that no effective deterrent exists short criminalization and that criminalization is an effective deterrent require considerable scrutiny.

We urge the Legislature to treat this issue with the utmost seriousness and to consider it from every possible perspective. There is an expense attached to processing children as criminals. The money may be better spent on educating them about the dangers of a tempter they don't fully understand.

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