Philip Seymour Hoffman and the middle-aged drug epidemic
Celebrated actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death at age 46 from an apparent heroin overdose is yet another indictment of the ongoing failure of drug war officials, interest groups, and politicians to confront the rising, decades-long epidemic of middle-aged abuse of illicit drugs, which now kills an American age 40-64 every 20 minutes.
Press reports in the wake of Hoffman’s death and recent campaigns by politicians have claimed the increase in opiate-related deaths — which include both prescription drugs like Oxycontin, and street-level drugs like heroin — is recent. Yet opiate and other illicit-drug deaths have been increasing for three decades. Although public service campaigns have long invoked “new” scourges of heroin and opiates that afflict middle-class young people, the group that most frequently dies from the most-abused drugs — street and pharmaceutical opiates — is white, middle-aged adults, not teenagers and young adults.
Over the nearly 30 years that Washington has waged an intense “war on drugs,” more than 30 million Americans have been arrested and five million have been imprisoned for drug offenses. Yet deaths from illicit drug abuse have also skyrocketed during this time. Drug abuse is now the United States’ leading cause of premature death, topping traffic accidents, guns fatalities and AIDS.
In 1980, around 2,500 Americans age 40-64 died from abusing illicit drugs; today, that number has swelled to over 25,000 per year. Drug abuse has made midlife, a frequently affluent and stable time, the period when Americans are most vulnerable to premature death. It has spawned related crises of crime, imprisonment, suicide, family breakup, and violence in local and international communities.
Yet the White House, Partnership at Drugfree.org, and major drug war and drug-legalization interests seem unable to move beyond the stereotype that modern drug abuse is just a problem of teens stealing meds from their parents’ bathrooms. They continue to focus on how to keep increasingly legal marijuana away from youngsters, a goal that is both futile and irrelevant to the real drug epidemic.
There are many reasons for the difficulties in addressing America’s drug abuse crisis. One is the inability to shift away from the traditional politics of treating “wars on drugs” as crusades, blaming feared populations for feared drugs — historically, the Chinese and opium and Mexicans and marijuana; in modern times, inner-city residents and crack cocaine. However, when drug abuse is prevalent in a “respectable” demographic such as middle-aged white adults, officials and interests are reluctant to stigmatize a powerful constituency they normally seek to flatter.
Decades of misdirected debate and inept policy have fostered a larger, disturbing reality: Americans of all ages ingest mood-altering drugs regardless of status — whether legal (alcohol), semi-legal (pharmaceuticals), or illegal (street drugs) — with more deadly consequences than citizens of other countries, according to World Health Organization data.
Drug prohibition has failed to stem illicit drug abuse and violence. However, legalizing marijuana and other drugs like alcohol is also perilous in an America with weak individual, social or legal constraints to prevent misuse. Although rarely noted, alcohol-related accidents caused by adults 21 and older represent the fifth-leading cause of death to American teenagers, and the ninth- leading cause of death to children. Federal fatality data shows that every year, drunken adults ages 21 and older cause some 800 deaths and 80,000 injuries to children and teens in a quarter-million traffic crashes.
Initial efforts to legalize marijuana, including lenient standards for driving while high, are showing troubling results. Marijuana-involved traffic accidents rose sharply in Washington State in the first year that the drug was legalized. Unfortunately, legalization interests seem more concerned with pointless moralizing over how to keep marijuana away from teenagers than addressing the dangers of driving while high.
A third policy alternative, regulating drugs by doctor prescription, is also connected to abuse — from barbiturates in the 1960s to medical opiates today. The current drug abuse crisis among middle-aged Americans consists of a mysterious combination of those with long-term problems, like Hoffman suffered, and those who developed drug abuse problems later in life.
More effective policy solutions include California’s reform efforts mandating intensified local drug treatment as an alternative to jail, prison sentences for low-level offenders (a strategy the White House just announced it will pursue for federal prisoners), and a 2011 reform reducing marijuana use by all ages to a rarely-enforced infraction. (Did teens afforded de facto legal marijuana go crazy? Hardly. Crime, hard drug arrests, school dropout rates, and related ills plunged to record lows among California youth in 2011 and 2012.) Meanwhile, California’s drug abuse death rate, much worse than the national average for decades, is now below the national average. Policies that mix decriminalization of the harmless use of milder drugs by teenagers and adults, stronger controls on prescriptions, and greater availability of drug treatment options seem to hold the most promise, but remain difficult to implement.
The Obama administration should launch a realistic investigation of 21st century drug abuse realities — a project long overdue and befitting a president who promised to employ science and reason in the interests of change.
PHOTOS: U.S. actor Philip Seymour Hoffman poses on the red carpet during a screening for the movie “The Master” at the 69th Venice Film Festival in Venice September 1, 2012. REUTERS/Max Rossi
Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman attends the premiere of the film A Most Wanted Man at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, January 19, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart