Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died recently with a needle in his arm and heroin scattered around him. His death has highlighted a growing epidemic of heroin use throughout the country. But fewer people are talking about another cause of his death: his reliance on prescription pills.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2010 there were 38,329 fatal drug overdoses in the United States.
That’s about 100 deaths per day, and more than double the number of fatal overdoses suffered in 1999.
Of those, 3,094 people died from heroin overdoses.
But more shockingly, 60 percent of those deaths — or 22,134 — were due to abuse of pharmaceutical drugs. And of those, 75 percent of deaths were due to an overdose of prescription opioid painkillers.
Preceding these deaths has been a drastic rise in consumption. The CDC says sales of prescription painkillers per capita has quadrupled since 1999, with enough prescription drugs prescribed in 2010 to medicate every American adult continually for a month.
In parts of Michigan, the prescription drug overdose death rate was eight and a half times higher in 2010 than in 1999, according to state data.
As prescriptions for painkillers rise, so does heroin abuse – and death from both.
One explanation is that highs from drugs like Vidocin and OxyContin — common prescription painkillers — are quite similar to the high one gets from heroin.
But heroin has become very cheap and very accessible, almost more so than prescription drugs. So when a user can’t get the prescription drugs, they jump back to heroin, and vice versa.
While the nation focuses on ways to prevent overdoses, and the emotional foundations of drug use, these statistics raise bigger questions about how America treats and legislates drug use.
Alcohol is a drug and is legal, yet there are almost 90,000 deaths per year in the country due to excessive use. Prescription medications – as noted above – are in the same boat.
Yet deaths due to overdoses from some illegal drugs, such as marijuana, are extremely rare.
As the federal government continues to outlaw and criminalize non-lethal drugs such as marijuana, it simultaneously encourages the use and abuse of highly addictive, legal — and very lethal — prescription painkillers.
In West Virginia, which has the highest number of drug overdose fatalities in the nation, 57 percent of people believe marijuana is a safer alternative than OxyContin. An additional 6 percent believe the drugs are at least equally safe.
One thing is clear: The $1 trillion the country has spent in the War on Drugs the past 40 years has not reaped its intended effect. There is more rampant drug abuse and death than when it began.
A number of states are now enacting “Good Samaritan” legislation that offers immunity to people who call law enforcement or medical help for a person suffering a heroin overdose. They can’t be punished for small amounts of drug possession or drug paraphernalia.
That’s good, but these small legislative actions do not go far enough. We hope it won’t take many more tragedies like Hoffman’s to effect substantial change in the way we treat and legislate drug use.