Expanding the War on Drugs

August 21, 1992

Nichelle Nicole Preston should be preparing for cheerleading practice at Glen Burnie High School. Instead, she is dead. She died a week shy of her 17th birthday, from inhaling butane fumes from a can. There are many senseless ways to die, but it is hard to imagine a greater waste than this.

So far, the war on drugs has isolated the "sexy" drugs -- cocaine, heroin, marijuana -- as the enemy while ignoring cruder but equally dangerous substances like butane. That has been a mistake.

Though deaths from inhalant abuse are rare, Ms. Preston's tragedy reflects what experts say is a growing trend toward abuse of cheap, easily obtained household items -- metallic spray paints, solvents, cleaning fluids, gasoline, even the "white-out" used for typewriter corrections. Historically, the choice of younger teens in poor neighborhoods, inhalants are increasingly popular with older adolescents and young adults in the middle and upper-middle classes. Recent surveys of school-age children show that cocaine and marijuana use are down, but abuse of alcohol and inhalants is rising.

In Anne Arundel County, police say so many teen-agers are buying butane that people seeking the gas for lighters or gas grills are out of luck. In Dundalk last year, there was such a run on metallic spray paint that substance abuse experts asked hardware store owners to take the stuff off the shelves, making it available by request only.

Schools, parents and anti-drug agencies must realize that teen-agers interpret the lack of commentary on certain drugs as a sign they are safe.

Anne Arundel County educators are using Ms. Preston's death as a springboard for a public service announcement, to be broadcast in all schools the day students return for the fall term, outlining the dangers of inhalants and similar substances. Other schools and organizations everywhere should follow suit. Young people must be told, loudly and clearly, that no drug is safe, that all drugs can kill and that solvents, inhalants and alcohol are drugs. Until that message is heard, it is only a matter of time before someone else dies, senselessly and too soon.

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