Philip Seymour Hoffman Didn’t Have to Die

Today movie fans and film aficionados all over the world are mourning the death of the one of the greatest actors of all time: Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The star of such films as Capote and The Hunger Games, Hoffman was known as an “actor’s actor,” the type of guy both casual moviegoers and artists respect. He was a true actor, not just a performer, and was capable of playing a wide range of characters.

He was found dead in a New York City apartment at around 11 AM Sunday, just blocks away from where his kids were playing at a playground.

Police found a syringe and bags of heroin at the scene, so all signs point to a heroin overdose as the cause of death.

Details are still emerging, but it appears that the heroin found in Hoffman’s apartment belongs to nasty strain of laced heroin known by such names as “Ace of Spades” and “Theraflu.”

Hoffman was only 46-years-old, a master of his craft, and a father of three young children. It is truly a tragedy that someone with that much talent and that much to live for died so young.

But perhaps the most tragic thing of all is that Hoffman’s death could very easily have been prevented.

It could have been prevented if we in the United States started to do what countries like the United Kingdom and Switzerland have been doing for years: prescribing heroin to heroin addicts.

This sounds counterintuitive, but it actually makes perfect sense once you understand how heroin works.

Opiate drugs like heroin are highly addictive, but abuse of alcohol and tobacco causes more serious damage to the body. Heroin does not ravage the liver and does not cause lung cancer.

While heroin addiction does have some negative long-term health effects, the real dangers of heroin abuse are overdose and disease.

Heroin overdoses happen for two main reasons: 1) the user is inexperienced or careless and uses too much heroin accidentally or 2) the user has become so addicted that they start using more heroin or more potent strains of heroin to get stronger highs. This is what appears to have caused Philip Seymour Hoffman’s overdose.

The other major risk of heroin addiction actually has nothing to do with the drug itself. Where heroin is illegal, addicts usually don’t have access to clean needles, and so many of them end up sharing dirty needles with other users in the addict community. As a result, many addicts end up contracting HIV or other blood-born diseases like Hepatitis C.

As long as they use heroin, drug addicts run the risk of either overdosing or contracting deadly diseases. Criminalizing addiction, like we do here in the United States, actually increases both of these risks, and thus dramatically increases the costs to all of society – you and me included – of the very, very small percentage of Americans who are heroin addicts.

Instead of punishing addicts or scaring them away from public view, we need to treat their condition like a public health problem. This is exactly what countries like Great Britain, Switzerland – and, until November, Canada – have done with their heroin prescription programs.

Once an addict gets a prescription for legal heroin, he has access to safe, clean needles and the purest forms of heroin possible. The addict also has access to anti-addiction programs to help him wean himself off heroin while getting the dosage he needs to avoid painful withdrawal symptoms.

Critics say that prescribing heroin endorses heroin addiction, but the facts don’t lie: heroin prescription programs work.

After the Swiss legalized prescription programs in the mid-1990s, they saw an immediate drop in both drug related deaths and deaths due AIDS among drug addicts.

More recent studies have reached the same conclusion.

A paper published by the New England Journal of Medicine in 2009 looked at a set of experimental prescription programs in Canada and found that they “led to a significant reduction of crime and overdose deaths.”

Similar new research put out in 2012 by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction found that the benefits of prescription heroin include,

“…a major reduction in the extent of continued injecting of ‘street’ heroin, improvements in general health, psychological well-being and social functioning, as well as major disengagement from criminal activities (such as acquisitive crime to fund continued use of ‘street’ heroin and other street drugs).”

That study also found that heroin prescription programs saved more lives than traditional addiction treatment programs that use a drug known as methadone as a replacement for heroin. Many suggest that methadone – a synthetic drug – is actually more addictive and destructive than heroin, which is derived from opium poppies.

But studies only tell half the story. For heroin addicts themselves, prescription programs are a chance to tackle their problems head on without having to worry about going to jail or stealing to pay for a fix.

Former addict Dave Murray recently told the Canadian Broadcasting Company that an experimental prescription program in Vancouver “definitely worked” and took away “a lot of stress.”

Ultimately, heroin addiction is a public health problem, and if we are truly interested in doing something about it, we need to start treating it like a public health problem.

This means we must embrace solutions, like heroin prescription programs, even though they may seem counterintuitive.

In the end, fighting heroin addiction and drug addiction in general, for that matter, should be dealt with in the most practical fashion possible. That’s why the United States should start its own heroin prescription program as soon as possible.

Not only are people’s lives are at stake, but as long as heroin is not available by prescription, the public health is at risk.