In July, TMZ reported that former child star Skye McCole Bartusiak, who played the role of Mel Gibson's daughter in The Patriot, had died at the age of 21. At the time, reports suggested that she choked to death in the midst of a "seizure," but now the gossip website is suggesting that her death was actually the product of an ugly drug overdose, a fatal combination of pain killers and huffing.
Huffing is awful. You know it, I know it, and it's probably fair to assume that Bartusiak probably knew it too. Even though inhalants are drugs in the sense that they will make you feel weird when you use them, putting them on lists of "drugs" next to other substance doesn't feel right. Acid, DMT, marijuana, and other social lubricants can make lame parties more interesting, sex more intense, and college kids more passionate about the musical stylings of Phil Lesh. At best, inhalants make you feel foggy and out of it.
The mechanism by which the chemicals you inhale get you high isn't even quite clear, because the primary effect doesn't come from the chemical itself, but from oxygen displacement, or tricking your body into thinking what it just breathed was oxygen. In other words: You're not getting high from what's in a can of duster. You're getting high because it's not oxygen.
And yet, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, inhalants are still relatively popular among younger teens. Though most kids disapprove of using them, a survey from last year found that one in 20 eighth graders huffed at some point in 2012, while only one in 30 tenth graders used them over that same period. Though these numbers are down from what they were in the 90s, young people of all ages abuse inhalants more frequently than almost every other illicit drug: more than hallucinogens, ecstasy, cocaine, meth, or heroin.
How is this possible, particularly in a country where considerably safer drugs like weed, booze, and Adderall are so readily available? Is this simply a question of access? And if so, why is a former child star—who presumably can afford better drugs than those found at her local Home Depot—abusing this sad, unpleasant high? After all, even the unapologetically pro-drug resource erowid.org has almost nothing nice to say about inhalants. Just consider the personal experiences users have written about LSD compared with huffing. For LSD, there are titles like "Helped Me to Become Someone That I Love," "Unexplainable Beauty," and "A Holographic Magical Mystery Trip." For inhalants there are "Don't Use Inhalants!" "Experiences in Death-Dodging," and at their most positive, "The Gasoline Experiments of a Child."
A deeper dive into Erowid's vaults present a wider range of experiences with inhalants. They provide useful insight into what huffing feels like and why people keep spraying themselves in the face with aerosol paint. I should note that even Erowid seems uncomfortable endorsing these stories: Above the personal narratives, a disclaimer warns that "Our understanding […] is that there is no such thing as safe use of volatile solvents, aerosols, and other street inhalants […] We have chosen to include these reports to help document the real world use of inhalants, but their inclusion is not intended to imply that they are anything but dangerous." Consider Kandykid, who documents his first experiment with huffing, way back in 2002, when he mixed Computer Duster with Vicodin (the same chemical cocktail that allegedly killed Bartusiak):
I put the tube in my fist, and I put my fist up to my nose. I pulled the trigger and inhaled the chemical directly. I put it down, and began to feel extremely dizzy, then my vision became very distorted, and I felt like I was spinning around with the world. Great. I began to go on a 'duster binge' which I named it last night. I took another hit, and it was better then the first. I stumbled to my bed, and stared at the hanging lights with awe.
But that was the end of the good times, as he spent the rest of the evening puking his guts out, splashing toilet water all over his face, and dealing with extreme dizziness, nausea, and his girlfriend's angry phone calls. A user named Packetaddiction tells a much funnier, positive story of his/her experience with huffing, along the way offering up along the way the clearest example of why people keep experimenting with inhalants and why there's still real appeal in their use, despite their serious health risks and the nasty hangover that typically follows:
I wasn’t sure what to do so I simply placed my lips around the nozzle and inhaled violently a few times. The effect hit me hard and fast. Blurred vision, very light-headed, and the desire not to move. It only lasted but a few minutes but I loved those few minutes. They were filled with thoughts that made no sense whatsoever. So I decided to give it another shot, but this time I was going to put my heart into it. I placed my bright red lips around the nozzle and this time I inhaled deeper, harder, and faster then before. The next thing I knew I was half-conscious on the floor crawling around, lost in those same strange thoughts. I hadn’t noticed that I had pulled that gas can down with me and I was lying in a pool of gasoline. Then I blacked out again and woke up about an hour later.
Despite the obvious dangers of crawling around in a pool of gasoline, that's the kind of story that many of us would tell total strangers at the bar for years to come, ruefully aware of how stupid we were but proud to have come out the other side relatively unharmed, having earned a funny, embarrassing story for our troubles. Unfortunately, stories like Packetaddictions's are few and far between. And yet, despite the negative experiences that huffing typically provides, people keep on abusing inhalants. Why?
To answer that question in greater context, I reached out to Dean Becker, former cop who is now a contributing expert on drug policy at the Baker Institute and the author of To End the War on Drugs. According to Becker, the continued prevalence of huffing and inhalants in our society is primarily a product of our failed drug policy.
"Because of prohibition, these drugs—these aerosols—remain available, remain cheap, and kids are always looking to get high," Becker said. Like many of us, he seemed frustrated that this is still a problem. "I don't have any other way to put it. [Getting high] is a natural compulsion, human condition, however you want to say it. And the fact is that we have created this situation through this prohibition means that kids who want to experience something outside the norm use what's available. And what's available are these horrible products that ruin their health and mental capacity. And there has to be a better way." Becker was clear that he wasn't promoting giving kids illicit drugs, but that instead, "We need to find a way to quell those compulsions, to give them something worth doing."
But for something that's not worth doing, people manage to get high off a stunning array of legal commercial products. How might we possibly decrease their popularity? "Education is our best way to do this," Becker suggests. "Show kids the reality. Show them the dead kids, show them the faces covered in paint, show them the lack of mental capacity that happens to these kids. Make them aware that this is not a good recreational drug."
Of course, Becker wasn't willing to give his opinion on what a "good" recreational drug might look like, but I don't think it takes much imagination to guess. Here's a simple rule of thumb: Look for recreational drugs that are less deadly, less addictive, and less harmful. So go ahead, go smoke some weed or eat some magic mushrooms. But please, stay the hell away from the duster.
If you're even considering huffing something, get help online or by calling 1 (888) 878-5718.
Follow Tim Donovan on Twitter.