“No words for this. He was too great and we’re too shattered.” — Director Mike Nichols.
The above quote is one of many describing the tragic death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the Academy Award-winning actor who died of an apparent heroin overdose last Sunday. The circumstances were a wake-up call for anyone who assumed the days of heroin were long gone.
In fact, this retro drug from the ’90s is not only back, but usage is increasing at an alarming rate. In addition to a four-fold increase in heroin seizures along our southern border, between 2006 and 2010 there was also a 45% increase in heroin-related deaths.
Hoffman’s is but one in a cyclical wave of fatal overdoses that have been a part of the human experience since 1897, when a German lab worker (with the ironic name of Felix Hoffman) turned acetylated morphine into a potent compound his company marketed as heroin, named for the German word heroisch, meaning heroic or strong.
Details of the scene in Hoffman’s bathroom are disturbingly familiar – baggies scattered around a body and a needle still protruding from an arm. But what separates this overdose from countless others is, of course, the victim’s status as a celebrity. The resulting outrage – no other word seems to fit – has created a sense that those who sold Hoffman the drugs were responsible for his death, despite that every user is well aware of the risks associated with injecting untested street drugs into the human body.
In other words, people want a scapegoat.
Let me share a story. In the mid ’90s my partner and I were assigned to a proactive street crime unit in downtown Tacoma. Because we spent the majority of our time arresting street level heroin dealers, we were among the first to know when a new and more potent form of black tar heroin made its appearance. Our first clue was a corpse.
It started the day we noticed an arm dangling out the window of a parked car. The young woman it belonged to was passed out and, like Hoffman, had a needle embedded in her vein. We did what we could until the medics arrived, but she didn’t make it.
That incident repeated itself several times over the next few weeks, though fortunately some of the victims were discovered in time to respond to an injection of Naloxone (if you have seen the movie “Pulp Fiction” then you know how effective the drug, commonly known as Narcan, can be).
We vowed to find the person selling this toxic form of heroin, and a few weeks later we did. But as it turned out, the dealer was himself a junkie, just one more in a long line of middle men that stretched all the way back to a chicken farm in Mexico, where the heroin was processed in a filthy bowl.
That was when I realized there is no person or group to blame for the untimely deaths of drug addicts, whether they be the faceless unknowns who sleep on the streets or the rich and famous like Heath Ledger, Whitney Houston, River Phoenix, John Belushi or Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
The real enemy is the addiction. If we want to turn our anger towards anything, that would be a good place to start.