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Over the weekend, the internet found something more important than the impending Superbowl to talk about: the Oscar-winning actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, was found dead in a New York hotel room. According to the police source that alerted the media to the death, Hoffman was reportedly found near baggies of what they believe to be heroin and with a syringe in his arm and his glasses on his head.
We won’t know until the autopsy is complete what the actual cause of death was, but the media and most social media users have already started blaming heroin. Preliminary tests on some of the heroin found in the apartment indicates that there is no fentanyl in the heroin. Although fentanyl is now considered unlikely to have killed Hoffman, heroin mixed with fentanyl has claimed the lives of nearly two dozen in PA since last year.
Even if the heroin wasn’t contaminated, people are already clamoring for the heads of the street-level dealers that have been arrested in connection with Hoffman. Some people are implying that the people who sold the heroin to Hoffman are responsible for his death. Others are blaming Hoffman for his addiction, saying he caused his own death.
And they couldn’t be more wrong. Even if his death was an overdose or the result of some contaminant other than fentanyl, which is very likely, the heroin isn’t to blame for Hoffman’s death. The people who sold him the heroin aren’t responsible either, because they were engaging in a calculated risk, as was Hoffman.
The United States government (and its failed, ongoing policy of criminal prohibition) is the reason Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead at such a young age. About that, there can be little question.
After all, it is prohibition, or the illegality of heroin, that makes it a black-market product. Being a black market product means street heroin is untested. It may be cut with dangerous chemicals or contaminated with science knows what. Or it could be more potent than the standard heroin a user is used to, leading to an accidental overdose, because dosages aren’t standard and users basically have to guess how much they want to use. Combine that with a rapidly developed tolerance in users, and you have a recipe for numerous overdose deaths.
Heroin was originally developed as a less-risk alternative to morphine. It was considered to have fewer negative health impacts and side effects. Unfortunately, it proved to be as addictive as other opiates, and in time, it was decided that heroin’s ability to be abused outweighed any possible benefits its production or use conferred, and it became a Schedule I narcotic.
As most people are well aware, the definition of a Schedule I narcotic is a substance with little or no medical benefit that poses great risk of harm and addiction. Being made a Schedule I narcotic does not magically remove the demand for a product. Heroin’s illegality has had little impact on supply and demand, other than the fact that it forces all transactions onto the dangerous and criminal black market.
Hardened criminals are often involved in the production and transportation of narcotics, including heroin. The marketplace is controlled by these same criminal elements, leading addicts to commit crimes of desperation when they no longer have the money to support their habit.
It is being stated in some media outlets that Hoffman took out $1,200 from various ATMs the day before he died. That amount of money reflects the ridiculous inflation of cost caused by the heroin black market.
Imagine with me, for a moment, that heroin is a legal, regulated substance within the United States. Imagine that we offer free support and counseling for heroin addict, and that our government provides clinics where those who struggle with addiction can safely and anonymously use their drug of choice until such a time when they are ready to pursue treatment for their addiction. What would happen in that scenario?
For starters, it’s pretty safe to say that money-related street crime would drop precipitously. Muggings and home invasions would decrease, because addicts would no longer need to find cash or pawn-able items to support their need for a daily fix. Additionally, the addicts would no longer be shooting up with dirty needles in flop houses and motels; they would be in a safe space where their condition was being monitored, where they wouldn’t be raped or murdered while high.
Secondly, it’s logical to assume that, like in Portugal, addicts would be more likely to seek out treatment and stay with it for longer period. The social stigma and risk of criminal prosecution that comes along with criminalizing addiction only serve to keep people addicted and on the fringes of society. The criminal record many receive will in the worst days of their addictions will only serve to ensure they never truly rise above their hardship by denying them decent employment and educational opportunities.
What would the real cost to society be? When black-market mark-ups are removed from the equation, most addictive drugs are shockingly cheap to produce. I can’t provide figures, but it’s unlikely that the expense of the drugs, the facilities, and the staff would be more expensive than the price of criminal enforcement of drug prohibition. And instead of paying for people to bully and further emotionally damage addicts, we’d be investing in their safety and possibly their recovery and future.
If Hoffman had been able to obtain standardized, tested heroin during his relapse into addiction (which can be treated to the point of remission but can not yet be cured), he would likely still be alive today. Many federal officials have recognized the need to treat addiction as a public health issue rather than a criminal one, but so far they have only paid lip service to the idea. Maybe if there had been follow-through on the concept, Hoffman and many other like him (including the 22 dead from fentanyl-contaminated heroin in Pennsylvania) would still be alive.
The United States government needs to acknowledge that the War on Drugs has become a war on its citizenry and move immediately to abolish all prohibition-related policies. Until that time, the Federal government is responsible for all those who suffer needlessly because of the black market prohibition has created, from overdose victims to low-income families whose neighborhoods have been infested with criminals who thrive on the prohibition-drive black market.