Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman is yet another victim of the war on drugs. Prohibition is not working. It is time to try something new.
Hoffman, 46, was found dead in the bathroom of his Manhattan apartment Sunday morning, apparently the victim of a heroin overdose. According to widely published reports, there was a syringe in his arm. Police found the place littered with small plastic bags stamped “Ace of Spades” or “Ace of Hearts” — brand names that street dealers use.
Hoffman had lived through a familiar pattern: experimentation, addiction, rehab, abstinence, relapse, more rehab, more abstinence, another relapse.
Why would a man held in such high esteem, a man with so much going for him and so much to live for, risk it all by buying illegal drugs from a criminal on the street and then injecting them into his veins?
For the same reason any addict uses drugs: to get high.
Perhaps this desire was a moral failing on Hoffman's part. Perhaps its origin lies buried in his personal history, with some trauma having triggered it. Perhaps it is written in his genetic code. I doubt we'll ever know for sure.
What we do know is that this need to get high is beyond some people's control. Our drug policy of prohibition and interdiction makes it difficult and dangerous for people like Hoffman to get high but not impossible — and makes these tragic overdose deaths more common than they have to be.
The obvious problem is that when an addict buys drugs on the street, he or she has no way of knowing how pure the product is and what else it might contain. In recent months, according to health officials, 37 people have died in Maryland, 23 in western Pennsylvania and several others in Ohio and New York from injecting heroin adulterated with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be up to 100 times more potent than morphine.
It makes sense that addicts would try to purchase only from dealers they trusted. It also makes sense that dealers selling a heroin-fentanyl mix would warn buyers of its potency, since killing the customers is bad for business. But remember that addicts use drugs to get high. Being told a certain batch of heroin would get them higher than usual might sound to their ears like a promise, not a threat.