Neuendorf: Heroin, other drugs viewed worse than they really are

Zachary Neuendorf

Weeks ago, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, actor in such films as “The Master,” “Capote” and “Synecdoche, New York,” died. After the autopsy results were released, he was found with a needle in his left arm with dozens of bags of heroin around him. It has been fairly clear since his unfortunate death that heroin was the killer. I dislike lingering on the way an artist died rather than honoring the body of work he built, but when there is a lesson to be learned, we should make an exception.

The unavoidable question when one dies in such a way is always the same: was it preventable? At the core of overdose fatalities is addiction itself and a slew of causes and effects. With such an unfathomably large issue, it is impossible to tackle it all in one sweeping statement or policy. Addiction cases are unique in substance and user, and treatments should be as customized as possible for the user to achieve the most sustainable recovery.

This renders the broad War on Drugs ineffective and counterproductive. President Barack Obama has begun to move in the right direction by no longer declaring our nation’s drug problem as a war. When people talk about drugs in America, it is usually about the relatively harmless, increasingly accepted marijuana, which is a terrific direction for our country’s appalling mass incarceration. Chipping away at the pot taboo is also good because now we can seriously talk about how to deal with disastrous drugs in hopes of a beneficial outcome.

Thus, we are presented with heroin and what to do with it: legalization, possibly? This is unthinkable for many because of heroin’s deadly nature, but a growing number support a total lift on the ban of all drugs, including methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin. Why forfeit our long-lasting prohibition in order to make detrimental substances more accessible? Quite simply, it is safer.

Canada and various countries across Europe have permitted heroin use within clinics under strict physician care with considerable success. Interestingly, Switzerland favored these heroin clinics over the legalization of marijuana. At these clinics, a doctor prescribes a non-lethal dose and monitors the consumption up to twice a day.

Not only does this ensure professional service, but the product is also safer — at least as safe as heroin can be. For example, there is currently an unregulated — obviously — string of deadly heroin being distributed throughout the East Coast. The ingredient that has killed 22 people in Pittsburgh alone is not normally in heroin; rather it is being spiked with acetyl fentanyl. More times than not, overdoses are because of a contaminant. At heroin centers, the potency and purity could be strictly regulated to help prevent this.

Supplying addicts with their vice may look undermining, but the point of this process is to wean the addict off in a healthy and controlled manner. Supplying heroin addicts with heroin has proven to be more effective than the normal methadone and detox treatment; sometimes, utter abstinence is not the answer. 

Because of the current stigma, most users will avoid rehabilitation at all costs. If they do seek help, it often comes too late. Our society’s stigma is also a catalyst for other misbehaviors, such as stealing and violence to scratch the itch. It is obvious that whatever we are doing right now is not working, since the number of addicts is on the rise, reaching 669,000 in 2012 compared to 373,000 in 2007.

An additional solution may come in the form of naloxone, a drug which is not yet offered over the counter everywhere despite its 90 percent success rate in reversing a heroin overdose. It does this by blocking the receptors in the brain that take in the drugs. It is a miracle drug of sorts, not only saving heroin victims but also urging them to quit. If this drug was available to the public, thousands of deaths could be prevented at home. 

It is widely understood that in situations regarding human health, economics ought to take a backseat so that human lives can be saved before we start worrying about the cost. Even so, legalization is not a bad thing financially. Similar to marijuana, our government could be taxing and regulating the sale of heroin. Making the drug legal just might decrease the 51 billion dollars our government shovels out yearly to monitor and prohibit all drugs on the street.

Heroin and other drugs are deadly, but we should not be scared to talk about them, do something about them and, most importantly, treat their victims like victims. Hoffman’s death was avoidable, and the crucial discussion arising from it will not bring him back to life. But then again, a discussion can never come too early, just too late.