Like many precocious youngsters Joan Yates* tried her first drug after an elementary school teacher warned her about the dangers of doing so. Yates' substance of choice? Glue.
"As soon as I found out you could get high from sniffing glue, three of us were doing it after school," the 22-year-old recalls now. "I didn't like it, though. It gave me a headache."
In 1995, years after she had her first few dabblings under her belt, Yates moved on to harder drugs - mostly illegal ones. In addition to trying marijuana, ecstasy and acid during her freshman year at the University of Florida, she admits a fancy for inhalants.
"If I could find something that felt that great that lasted more than 30 seconds, I'd love it," Yates says enthusiastically. Then she adds, "(My roommate's) lip used to always turn blue. Looking back on it, it might not have been so good. Besides whippets, students have found other products that give them a cheap thrill. Many collegians are experimenting with other foodstuffs (Think fresh nutmeg and banana peels.), household products (Hello, paint thinner!), and over-the-counter remedies (Robitussin) to get high.
Yates says that highs from legal substances usually are short-lived and inexpensive, compared to those associated with narcotics. But experts claim they can be just as deadly.
Director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, Dr. H. Westley Clark, explains, "There's a lot of intellectual exploration that goes on in college, some of it that may be hazardous to your health."
If products can be abused, Clark says curious students undoubtedly find ways to do it. From vegetable oil cooking spray and magic markers -- to helium and prescribed tranquilizers. "Nothing surprises me," the doctor says.
Some of the substances students are using to get high can do irreparable damage to their health. Specifically, their livers, kidneys, bone marrow, heart muscles, brains or respiratory systems. Case in point: One unfortunate MIT student suffocated this September after breathing laughing gas from a bag placed over his head. "There is a downside to being a guinea pig," Clark says matter-of-factly.
That said, it's not surprising that about 20 percent of college-age students admitted to hospitals, suffer complications from abusing common inhalants or analgesics - like Tylenol with codeine. Almost twice that many wind up in the ER after mixing alcohol with their drug of choice. That's according to a survey of medical examiners conducted by the Drug Abuse Warning Network in 1996.
Cashiers at all Wal-Mart stores are also now required to card spray paint purchasers - to make sure they are at least 18 years old. "We always continue to listen to the industry and find out what's going on to make sure our products are being used as they're intended - whether or not it's a law," says Moser.
She also points out that Wal-Mart customers have not complained about the policy. "It's a step that we have taken to do what is responsible."
Among the critics of this crackdown is Illinois State University student Matt Koglin. He says the answer is education - not controlling the sale of legal substances. Koglin, president of ISU's chapter of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) insists the truth about the dangers of abusing these kinds of products, should be taught to children at a very early age.
"If we're honest with our kids about the effects of drugs, they might believe us when it comes to more dangerous drugs that could really hurt them - like those available under their kitchen sinks." Whether or not the truth will save lives, though, remains to be seen.
* Name changed.