A Bethel lawmaker is urging the Legislature to criminalize inhalant abuse, saying the practice has reached "rampant" proportions in Alaska and made addicts of children as young as 5.
At a Tuesday press conference, Rep. Mary Kapsner called on lawmakers to pass her bill, which would make it a misdemeanor to sniff gas, hairspray or any other inhalant to get high - a practice known as huffing. The measure also would allow police or medical providers to place inhalant abusers into rehabilitation - even against their will.
Although inhalants are deadly, authorities can't intervene when they see kids huffing because it's not illegal, Kapsner said.
"A lot of the older kids know that it's not illegal and there's nothing that can be done to dissuade them from abusing themselves ... we need to do something to curb it," said Kapsner, adding 24 states have passed laws addressing inhalant problems.
Although her bill would make inhalant abuse a misdemeanor, Kapsner has reservations about making young kids criminals and she supports reducing the offense to a violation. She said she included the misdemeanor language mostly to send a message, adding a violation probably would be punishable by a $300 fine and the choice of treatment or jail time.
"I don't want to start off soft on this," she said. "I want to start letting people know how really dangerous this is and how serious I am about trying to let kids know that it isn't appropriate."
A 1999 state study found 14 percent of high school kids and 12 percent of middle school students statewide (excluding Anchorage) had tried inhalants. A 1998 survey by the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp. found 161 Alaskans sought treatment for inhalant abuse in 1996 and 1997 and that 46 people with a history of inhalant abuse died during that period.
One village recently found 90 percent of fifth and sixth graders were huffing, said Kapsner, emphasizing the problem reaches urban children, too.
Although no one tracks the number of inhalant abuse cases in Juneau, a supervisor at Juneau Youth Services said she hears frequent reports of the problem. The nonprofit agency helps about 800 troubled kids - roughly 60 percent have substance abuse problems and the majority of them say they use inhalants, said Stacy Toner, head of the organization's Chemical Dependency Services Unit.
"It's a very cost-effective high for kids and it's easily accessible," said Toner, adding local kids also seem to be trying inhalants at a younger age. Two years ago Juneau kids told the agency they started inhalants at about 12 years old, but now they're huffing at nine or 10, she said.
Local drug and alcohol abuse counselor Ruth Simpson said a decade ago she dealt with probably eight to 10 kids a year with inhalant problems. Although she only recently resumed a career as a youth counselor, she said inhalant abuse doesn't seem rampant in Juneau. However, inhalants are so devastating to the central nervous system, even one case is too many, said Simpson, a counselor at Juneau-Douglas High School.
"I can tell you I have one confirmed client as we speak right now. He's very damaged," she said. "Inhalant abuse truly does eat holes in their brain matter."
Simpson is struggling to find a rehab center for the youths; inhalant abusers need different treatment than other drug users because sometimes they are so neurologically damaged they can't retain information or sit still, she said. The problem is Alaska doesn't offer such a program. However, that will change in August when the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp. opens the state's first treatment and detoxification center for inhalant abusers, a federally funded project located in Bethel. The 16-bed facility will be open to kids age 10 to 17 from across the state.
Meanwhile, Kapsner hopes lawmakers will pass her bill and allow authorities to steer troubled kids to the new clinic for help. She introduced a similar bill last session, but it died in its third committee.
Kathy Dye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.