Philip Seymour Hoffman

Journalists, Politicians More Likely to Overdose on Heroin Than Junkies

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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 Time.com 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 Time.com piece, which includes links to all the stats cited above.