The recent high-profile and tragic death of Oscar-winning actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman from an apparent heroin overdose has focused attention on what many are calling a heroin epidemic in America. Beyond the bright lights that follow the rich and famous, the real story may be that 100 other Americans died of a heroin overdose on the same day as Mr. Hoffman, and 100 more die every day in the same tragic manner, according to the Center for Disease Control.
The questions arise: Are those pushers who feed the addictions and contribute to the demise of nearly 40,000 people a year really non-violent criminals? Is a syringe loaded with heroin any less lethal than a handgun? And is our increasingly permissive culture and liberal political attitude taking us in the wrong direction?
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) called America’s heroin culture a “scourge,” adding, “We have people who start off with some kind of prescription drugs and then wind up with this stuff that’s been prepared by purveyors of evil.” Sen. Patirck Leahy (D., Vt.) and others are also calling for federal action and help for states regarding the heroin issue and have pledged to hold hearings soon.
The CDC says the upward trend in heroin use and addiction is national. Their statistics tell us that death by heroin increased by 45% from 2006 to 2010, and more heroin just keeps on coming. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, they seized heroin at a rate 232% higher in 2012 than in 2008, and that’s just at the southwest U.S. border. Perhaps most troubling, while death rates for most age groups have remained steady over the past few years, deaths for young users 15 to 24 years old has increased significantly.
While some are focusing on prevention, treatment, making the overdose antidote drug (Naloxone) more readily available, and even clean injection centers, others are looking at the pushers, penalties, and murder charges for their drug crime. Four people were arrested in New York in the aftermath of Hoffman’s death, although they may or may not be related to the overdose. Current law would not make it possible for them to be charged with murder in any case, but there are those who would like to see that change placed against them.
Two states (Colorado and Washington) have already legalized the recreational use of marijuana, and more are sure to follow. A presidential pardon in December overturned young man’s life sentence for the “non-violent” crime of selling crack cocaine as part of a large conspiracy. The release of the 17-year-old offender may be arguably justifiable, but there is a growing political climate to decriminalize or lighten the sentences for such offenses. At the same time, some experts and officials are beginning to question the wisdom and repercussions on society dropping our guard against drugs of any kind, especially in the light of the Hoffman death.