As a longtime fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman's work, I view the widespread reactions of grief over his death with a mixture of appreciation and dread.
As a fan, I appreciate the recognition that this Oscar-winning actor's astounding talents richly deserved.
But I also brace myself for the sort of anger-driven, self-defeating, lock-'em-up anti-drug crusades that too often have followed shocking drug-related celebrity deaths.
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Such high-profile tragedies as the 1970 drug-related deaths of rock stars Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, for example, helped fuel the Nixon administration's "war on drugs" and numerous "zero tolerance" state drug laws that filled prisons with nonviolent offenders serving long jail sentences.
So did the Reagan-era war against crack cocaine and other drugs in the 1980s following the shocking cocaine overdose of rising basketball star Len Bias.
Every heroin death is tragic, but Hoffman's death had a bracing resonance. He was found dead at age 46 of an apparent heroin overdose on Feb. 2 in his New York City apartment with a syringe in his arm and packets of drugs nearby.
His narrative upsets the usual heroin-junkie stereotype. He wasn't broke, dirty, undernourished, homeless or a rock star. Instead, his death puts a famous face on a more recent national calamity: upper-income heroin addicts who started with prescription painkillers.
As his many obituaries and tributes recount, Hoffman had been clean of drugs and alcohol for two decades, during which he had a brilliant career. Then he started taking prescription pain pills two years ago and checked into a rehab program last year.
If Hoffman moved from prescription pills to heroin, he was following a familiar path: an epidemic of OxyContin and other brand-name narcotic prescription painkillers of the same opiate family as heroin serving as gateway drugs to heroin.
Four out of five new heroin users had previously abused painkillers, according to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Abuse and Health. And as the number of heroin users increased in recent years, the survey found, use of prescription painkillers for nonmedical reasons declined.
Dr. Sally Satel, a practicing psychiatrist and health policy expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told me that much of the recent heroin epidemic can be blamed on simple economics: "Many users of prescription painkillers find they can get the same effects from heroin a lot cheaper."
Unfortunately, heroin also is a lot more dangerous. Lacking the quality control that a pharmaceutical company and government oversight provide, you don't know what you're getting from one batch of heroin to the next.
Yet, as Satel noted in a recent article for Bloomberg, many people switched to heroin because they lost their insurance or they have turned away from anti-abuse measures, such as the new preparation of OxyContin that turns into a sticky mush when it is crushed, instead of a fine powder that can be snorted or injected.
To remedy this new plague, Satel and other experts recommend that more attention should be paid to treatment programs and doctors who overprescribe addictive painkillers when less dangerous drugs will do the job just fine. We know from experience, at least, that drug addiction needs to be treated as a medical matter, not just a criminal matter.
Significantly, Hoffman's tragic end comes at a time when states and the federal government are relaxing their drug laws and turning to sentencing alternatives to reduce prison populations, save money and ease the transition of nonviolent inmates back into society.
A third of U.S. states closed prisons over the past three years, according to a recent report by the Washington-based Sentencing Project, while almost two-thirds enacted reforms to reduce the number of incarcerated.
One promising bipartisan Senate proposal, the Smart Sentencing Act, is backed by Democrats like Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Dick Durbin of Illinois, and Republicans like Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky. The bill aims to reduce mandatory minimums for federal drug charges and give judges more discretion in sentencing.
Hoffman hoped that if he ever died of an overdose, according to his friend filmmaker Aaron Sorkin, that it would frighten others away from heroin. I hope it also frightens us toward remedies that make sense and not just ones that fill prisons.
Clarence Page, a member of the Tribune's editorial board, blogs at chicagotribune.com/pagespage