Who Killed Rachel Whitear?


Last year British schools began showing students a video about a 21-year-old heroin addict named Rachel Whitear as a cautionary tale. The most shocking image showed her dead body as it was discovered four years ago, crouching face down with a syringe in her hand. Although the death was assumed to be the result of a heroin overdose (no autopsy was performed), a blood test later showed she had not taken enough of the drug to kill her. Now the authorities are exhuming her body in an attempt to find out how she actually died.

As the psychologist (and Reason contributor) Stanton Peele notes, true heroin overdoses are rare. Deaths attributed to overdose may in fact be caused by impurities in black-market heroin or by mixing heroin with other depressants. (Three-quarters of the heroin-related deaths identified by the federal government's Drug Abuse Warning Network involve drug combinations.) In any case, it's clear that prohibition increases the risks to heroin users by making purity unreliable, encouraging needle sharing, and fostering violence (presumably one of the possibilities being considered in Rachel Whitear's case)–not to mention the threat of arrest.

Rachel's parents, who produced the anti-drug video, seem to recognize how prohibition makes life more dangerous for people like their daughter. After a visit to the Netherlands last year for a look at that country's more tolerant approach to drugs, Rachel's mother said, "If they are going to use it anyway, the safer the circumstances the better…Fewer deaths might occur from it."

[Thanks to Barry Vaughan for the tip.]