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Court rules man properly committed for huffing gas (UPDATE)

By TODD RICHMOND
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A Marathon County judge properly forced a man into treatment for huffing gasoline, a state appeals court ruled Tuesday, rejecting his argument that gasoline doesn’t qualify as a drug.

The family of the man, who was identified only as Zachary W. in court documents, petitioned to have him involuntarily committed last year, alleging he was a danger to himself because he had been huffing gasoline regularly for two to three years. They said they had found him unconscious on their property several times in the month prior to filing the petition. The man had been stealing gas from any source available and was living in the woods, they added.

Under state law governing involuntary commitments, the county had to prove the man was dependent on drugs. But that portion of the statutes doesn’t define the term “drug” and the man argued that gasoline doesn’t meet the definition of a drug under other sections of state law. Those statutes define a drug as a controlled substance, something used to cure or prevent disease, a substance used to affect human or animals’ bodily functions. A drug is not a gas or device meant for mechanical, manufacturing or scientific uses, according to those statues.

County attorneys countered that one of the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s definitions of “drug” is “something and often an illegal substance that causes addiction, habituation, or a marked change in consciousness.” They argued Zachary W. was using gas just like a drug to create changes in his consciousness.

Judge Jill Falstad told jurors to consider the existing statutory definitions of “drug” as well as the dictionary definition. The jury ultimately found the man to be drug-dependent and Falstad ordered him committed.

The man argued on appeal that since the commitment statutes don’t define “drug” it’s unclear whether he could be found drug-dependent for inhaling gasoline. The judge also shouldn’t have let jurors consider multiple definitions of “drug,” he contended, saying she essentially let jurors pick whichever definition they liked.

The District 3 Court of Appeals concluded that the evidence overwhelmingly showed Zachary W. was using gas like someone who was dependent on a drug. He also provided nothing to support his argument that Falstad was required to give jurors a single definition of “drug.”

Zachary W.’s attorney, public defender Ellen Krahn, had no immediate comment.

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