With scores of suburban kids dying of heroin overdoses in recent months in relatively upscale communities like Ocean County, New Jersey, it was just a matter of time before a high-profile celebrity like 46-year-old, Oscar-winning actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman joined the ranks of previous celebrity junkies like Lenny Bruce, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Heath Ledger in a body bag.
Smack is now cheaper and far easier to purchase on the streets of New York than either prescription medicines like Oxycontin or Xanax or even a bag of good weed.
Heroin users don’t usually die from bad dope, they die from good dope; accidentally overdosing when the drug they are shooting is cheap and potent and right now heroin is cheaper and stronger than ever.
After the deaths of the superstars and of those clusters of suburban kids who died of overdoses last year, television shrinks rush to the airwaves to ponder what went wrong in their apparently privileged lives that they would sink so low as to use the ghetto drug that epitomizes the lowest of the low.
I can’t answer for heroin’s perverse allure; why people who should know better go so far to the dark side, but I do know that once a junkie, always a junkie. Once you are hooked the way Phillip Seymour Hoffman was hooked on smack years ago, it is often only a matter of time before some excuse to use rears its ugly head. Then, it’s Russian Roulette. Sometimes you get the extreme high that you’re chasing and sometimes you die.
A long time ago (43 years) in a galaxy far, far away (East 100th Street in Spanish Harlem), I did something that had never done before on network television; I interviewed heroin addicts full-faced on camera for my first ever special report, ‘Drug Crisis in East Harlem’. They looked bewildered, belligerent, lost, embarrassed and defensive.
“How much are you spending on heroin every day?” “A hundred dollars?! Where are you getting the money to buy your dope?” “Don’t you see that you’re killing yourself?” “Man, you’re a mess.” Lady, does your mother know that you’re selling your body to feed your habit?”
In those bad old days, New York was living in terror. In the throes of a raging heroin epidemic involving tens of thousands of addicts citywide (as many as 500,000 across the nation), junkies were everywhere: nodding out on the stoops of brownstones, in the subways, alleyways, on the lawns and elevators of the projects, everywhere. Most of those addicts were black and Latino; poor, mostly young to middle-aged men and women whose low-rent prostitution, street robberies, apartment burglaries and more violent crimes were a curse on the city. Overdose deaths were a daily occurrence in the hood, and they soon spread to other, better hoods when our GI’s returned from Vietnam hooked on cheap Asian smack. Those battered veterans soon hooked up with other urban nomads and counterculture hippies and populated neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Haight-Asbury and Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where I lived. Heroin use spread to the middle class.
Back in the day, then President Richard Nixon invoked New York’s heroin epidemic to start the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and wage what became the fruitless Trillion Dollar War on Drugs, saying that “America’s public enemy No. 1 in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.”
Part of Nixon’s War on Drugs was to create harsh new laws to punish pushers and users alike. In typical government overreaction, everything from heroin to cocaine to marijuana was lumped together and treated with similar severity. Even small-time user/dealers were treated as traitors and everybody went to jail.
Because of those Draconian and dumb laws that did not adequately distinguish between pot and smack, law enforcement was diluted. All drug abuse was treated equally, and the ax fell heaviest on black and brown kids who were less interested in heroin, especially after the AIDS and crack epidemics of the late 1980’s, and more interested in pot. Over the ensuing decades, uncounted tens of thousands of mostly minority pot smokers were busted with catastrophic consequences for their futures in terms of city jobs or public housing or college admissions. With that misguided focus on the easy to catch potheads, heroin made its insidious comeback.
Smack is now cheaper and far easier to purchase on the streets of New York than either prescription medicines like Oxycontin or Xanax or even a bag of good weed. Last week, ABC News reported that the glassine envelopes of heroin like the kind found scattered around Hoffman’s Greenwich Village apartment were selling for as low as five bucks a pop.
One result of misguided drug policy was almost pre-ordained. In 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control, there were 1,842 overdose deaths nationwide. Ten years later, by 2010 that number had jumped to 3,036. These days, entire rural/suburban states like Vermont are in the grip of the smack attack. Meantime, until recently, New York City was still busting poor kids for two joints in their knapsacks.
Time to grow up America; addiction is a disease. Bring it out of the closet of shame and punishment. Everybody has tried marijuana; even your mom and dad. President Obama says pot is less dangerous than alcohol. It is certainly less dangerous than prescription meds or heroin for God’s sake. The War on Drugs is an ongoing tragedy and a tragic waste. Ask Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s widow.