08/24/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT
Four days before authorities descended on Cameron Douglas's Manhattan hotel to arrest him on drug-trafficking charges, Douglas ran into an old friend on the streets of New York. "He came up to hug me, and I didn't recognize him," says Steve Lewis, who had last seen his pal a year ago. "He was pasty and heavy." More alarming, says Lewis, who once employed the son of actor Michael Douglas as a deejay at the nightclub Spa, was what he didn't see when he looked into his friend's eyes: "The familiar spark was gone." Still, says Lewis, Cameron, 30, talked happily about upcoming music and acting projects. "He was excited about the future. He was upbeat."
Despite his history of drug problems, those close to Douglas were stunned when he was taken into custody by DEA agents on July 28 for allegedly selling large amounts of methamphetamine. The result of a three-year sting operation, the DEA case charges that he operated out of swank hotels in New York and L.A. and used FedEx to deliver crystal meth to buyers. In calls and text messages, Douglas called the drug "pastry" or "bath salts." "Did you get a chance to, like, smell any of the salts?" he allegedly asked in a wiretapped conversation. Douglas's lawyers and family have refused to comment on the charges, for which he could face a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison. "When I read about it, it broke my heart," says pal Lewis. "I can only imagine how this is affecting his family."
The Douglas clan—which includes his Oscar-winning father, Michael, 64, and grandfather Kirk, 92—is no stranger to substance abuse. Michael did a stint in rehab for a drinking problem in 1992, and Michael's half-brother Eric died of an overdose in 2004 after a long battle with drugs and alcohol. By his early teens, Cameron was struggling with similar demons. At his prep school, he "was mellow but heavily into partying," says a pal. "What was Michael going to say," asks another, "'Don't do drugs'? It was an accident waiting to happen."
Friends say his parents' divorce—Michael and his first wife, Diandra, separated after 18 years in 1995—and pressure to live up to the family name exacerbated Cameron's problems. "He had some big shoes to fill, and it haunted him," says friend Lewis. "Cameron was desperately in need of love—as if it was an out-of-reach thing for him."
Michael has spoken of his regret about not being more present during his son's childhood. "I did the best I could with Cameron," he told PEOPLE in 2003, "but there were big absences." With his family's support, Cameron did a year in rehab in the late '90s and worked as a deejay and actor. He forged closer ties to his dad, serving as best man at Michael's 2000 wedding to Catherine Zeta-Jones
. But in 2007, friends say, his abuse problem spiraled again. Currently authorities will not say whether Douglas is still in custody. "Everyone cared for him and tried, but he was beyond any individual's help," says Lewis, adding that his family was forced "to just let him bottom out. They expected something bad—but not like this."