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.