Philip Seymour Hoffman

Journalists, Politicians More Likely to Overdose on Heroin Than Junkies


In the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman's death, my colleague Jacob Sullum has done great work in calling attention to the flat and declining trends in heroin. The short version is that somewhere around 0.1 percent of Americans ages 12 and older use junk in the past month - a vanishingly small number that was exactly the same a decade ago. When it comes to 8th, 10th, and 12th graders, the numbers for annual use are tiny to begin with (0.6 percent or less) and substantially lower than they were in the 1990s.

But what about Vermont, supposedly Ground Zero in the new heroin epidemic? Here's a snippet from my latest column, which should give much-needed perspective on the matter:

Earlier this year, the Gov. Peter Shumlin of Vermont made news when he devoted his annual "state of the state" address to what he called "a full-blown heroin crisis." Shumlin testified that "we had nearly double the number of deaths in Vermont from heroin overdose as the prior year."

It's certainly true that there can be regional spikes even if national usage rates are flat. But according to Vermont's Department of Health, in 2012 there were just nine deaths classified as "heroin involved" (a category that doesn't mean heroin was the sole or even the principal cause of death). Taking the governor at his word, that means there were fewer than 18 deaths last year in Vermont in which heroin was a factor. (2013 data were not available.)

The Green Mountain State has about 626,000 people in it. It's a damn shame that anyone dies of a heroin overdose (I count one old friend among the casualties), but nobody in their right mind should be setting national or state policy based on a dozen-and-a-half deaths.

But drug panics are like no other in American life. Thirty years ago, the drug-related death of an NBA hopeful ushered in a long national nightmare that we're only barely getting around to waking up from:

The history of crusades and legislation related to drug deaths teaches us that lawmakers should proceed with caution and resist overreaction. In 1986, liberal Democratic lawmakers used the high-profile, cocaine-related death of Len Bias, a college basketball star who had signed to play with the Boston Celtics, to show that they could be just as tough on drugs as conservative Republicans during the "Just Say No" era. The result was a series of mandatory-minimum sentences that had no clear effect on drug use or black markets but helped the United States become the biggest jailer country on the planet.

Read the whole piece, which includes links to all the stats cited above.

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  1. What about Hollywood celebs?

  2. Vermont's Governor only played the heroin card to distract from the fact that he paid CGI $84 million dollars for a non functioning obamacare portal.

  3. I know there is a VAST HEROIN EPIDEMIC out there, because I heard it on the radio.

  4. Journalists, Politicians More Likely to Overdose on Heroin Than Junkies

    Are we taking nominations?

  5. Whatever the number for politicians, it ain't high enough.

  6. The short version is that somewhere around 0.1 percent of Americans ages 12 and older use junk in the past month

    Nothing to do with the relevance of the article, but how could anyone possibly compile enough data to come up with that number?

  7. I groaned when I saw the Burlington Free Press headline on Shulmin's speech but the recent release of a Vermont made documentary "The Hungry Heart" (which has no IMDB entry yet) made heroin an easy target right and Shulmin needs all the distractions he can get.

    1. Shumlin has it made unless the Republicans can find someone (who isn't a nut job) to run against him.

      1. Vermont / Republicans = #DIV/0

  8. Just asking for a friend, what kills more people per year, heroin or prescription drugs?

      1. Crap, I meant over the counter, but I think either way, prescription or over the counter, both kill more than heroin.

        1. Part of that is just numbers of consumers. I'm sure there are at least two or three orders of magnitude more users of over-the-counter pain pills that heroin users. I've never seen the statistics for deaths per 100,000 users. So who knows.

          But it should be intuitively obvious that over-the-counter heroin would be far, far safer than black-market heroin.

          1. This is a few years old, but it has a nice table in it:


            1. Or never mind, that still isn't based on users.

              1. Annual drug overdose death rates*

                * Per 100,000 population. Based on U.S. Census resident population estimates.

                Exactly what I was wondering about.

                1. never mind. I just realized what you were saying.

            2. Cocaine is 2 1/2 times greater that heroin.

            3. It's also just FL numbers

              1. Well that screws up everything 😉


                  National stats for 2008

    1. In 2010, 30,006 (78%) of the 38,329 drug overdose deaths in the United States were unintentional, 5,298 (14%) of suicidal intent, and 2,963 (8%) were of undetermined intent.

      "In 2010, of the 38,329 drug overdose deaths in the United States, 22,134 (60%) were related to pharmaceuticals.
      Of the 22,134 deaths relating to prescription drug overdose in 2010, 16,652 (75%) involved opioid analgesics (also called opioid pain relievers or prescription painkillers), and 6,497 (30%) involved benzodiazepines."

      1. If we want to determine how "dangerous" heroin is, we need to know how many heroin users accidentally kill themselves.

        So some place, there is a report that tells how many heroin deaths there were in a given year. Some place else, we might find a report that estimates how many heroin users there are. So then we could estimate what percentage of heroin users kill themselves in any given year.

        We could repeat this process with prescription opiates, and then we could compare apples to apples.

        But I am at work and don't really have enough interest to go digging in the Internet.

        1. And the reason I'm not that interested is because I claim that the death rates for heroin and prescription opiates would be basically the same if heroin was not illegal.

  9. In the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman's death

    Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead? Wow! I limit my daily reading to Reason, so this is the first I've heard about it.

    1. What is a Philip Seymour Hoffman? And, why should I give a shit?

  10. Politicians... Overdose on Heroin

    I'll drink to that!

  11. I am hearing more stories about heroin on the news so obviously heroin use is on the rise.

    1. It sounds like the "In" drug and I like to stay hip and with-it - so I'm switching from scotch to heroin.

      I hope it doesn't turn out like in the late eighties when I took trip down crack-whore lane.

  12. Is it okay if I beg for a hit tip for the Vermont story?

  13. Would you agree that using hard drugs such as heroin is stupid? Perhaps you can fix stupid, but as Hoffman's death demonstrates, it isn't easy to fix stupid. You can think you fixed stupid, but even "intelligent" users such as Hoffman demonstrate that stupid runs deep. It appears that stupid wants a fix more than stupid wants to be fixed. Perhaps we need an education campaign centered around the theme, "Are you stupid?" There should be a vast number of images of what stupid looks like after wasting away and dying from using hard drugs.

    Then, to placate those who feel there is a class war on drugs, prominently display a "Stupid Box" in each school filled with free samples of hard drugs to anyone who wants to be stupid [to avoid discriminating against those who are poor and can't afford drugs]. Seal each sample in an envelope along with the addresses for emergency rooms, where to apply for food stamps, where to apply for Medicaid, and local funeral parlors that offer cheap funerals. Then see who the really stupid people are. They can't be fixed.

  14. I really love Reason, but I gotta say that I find this week's theme--Heroin: What's the Big Deal?--to be odd and little disturbing. I hate when people (usually liberals) poo-poo popular opinion on anything and everything just to prove how clever they are compared to the masses, and I hope that's not what's going on here. Legal or not, heroin is bad stuff. Maybe sharing that widely-held sentiment makes me a sheep, but I think that's the correct position, so I'm not inclined to argue the other way.

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