Colorado History

Professor's Study of Glue Sniffing Led to Denver, Center of the "Epidemic"

How did a Louisiana-bred associate professor of African-American Studies at Georgia’s Valdosta State University come to the conclusion that Denver was “the most important place in the country to the glue-sniffing epidemic”? For historian and author Thomas Aiello, it started when he began researching his 2010 book Bayou Classic: The Grambling-Southern Football Rivalry.

“When I got to the early ’60s,” Aiello remembers, “there were these articles, these kind of jeremiads, in the black newspapers in New Orleans — the Louisiana Weekly — lamenting glue sniffing among the kids in New Orleans.”

And suddenly Aiello, who is white, was “opening the lid on this thing that I had known nothing about,” he says. “I started digging around what exactly they were talking about and why it was an issue. It led me down a very, very long and deep rabbit hole that led to the book.”

To research what ultimately turned into Model Airplanes Are Decadent and Depraved: The Glue-Sniffing Epidemic of the 1960s, published by Northern Illinois University Press in 2015, Aiello traveled to law libraries throughout the South to determine how each Southern state handled the scourge of glue sniffing. He even filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI, which had its own file on glue sniffing. The result was the first full-length, historical look at American glue sniffing.

One of the book’s revelatory items is Hawaiian congresswoman Patsy Mink’s 1970 federal crusade to ban glues without an “obnoxious odor” added, in order to prevent glue sniffing. “Hawaii is another place that has a really devastating glue epidemic,” Aiello says. New Orleans was apparently one of the few places in the country where glue sniffing appeared to be a problem among African-American kids.

Aiello read Edward M. Brecher’s Licit and Illicit Drugs, and ruminated over “How to Launch a Nationwide Drug Menace,” the chapter that centers on Brecher’s supposition that glue-sniffing arrests increased dramatically after 1959 in Denver because kids had learned about the practice through newspaper articles on the subject. While Aiello doesn’t know if that’s the case, he says, “By being kind of the ‘genesis point’ where the freakout began, and having the Denver Juvenile Court take the lead in being the kind of testing ground for figuring out ways to come up with solutions, Denver, I think, is the most important place in the country both for the beginning and ultimately the conclusion of what happens in the glue-sniffing epidemic.”

The title of Aiello’s book is a nod to late Colorado resident Hunter S. Thompson’s first piece of “gonzo” reporting: “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved.”

That article proved relevant to Aiello’s own glue-sniffing project. “You assume this horse race is a fancy and very staid event, and you get there and you realize what’s really going on,” he explains. “And that’s kind of very much the way I felt about this glue-sniffing thing: It was very much [a] ‘the kids aren’t all right’ kind of moment.”
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