Sometimes it takes a celebrity’s death to galvanize attitudes about a drug epidemic that has already ruined, or ended, the lives of many lesser-knowns. So it was when University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died from a cocaine overdose in 1986. So it may be with actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose death last month coincided with government statistics showing a rise in heroin use and overdose deaths among 15- to 34-year-olds.
In the latest sign of a more vigorous governmental response, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. devoted his weekly video message Monday to what he called an “urgent and growing” public health crisis. Significantly, Holder emphasized education and treatment measures as well as stepped-up law enforcement, suggesting that the Obama administration does not want to repeat past unduly punitive anti-drug campaigns.
At the same time, there is a key difference between this heroin epidemic and previous ones, as Holder noted: It is related to the abuse of chemically similar legal drugs, prescription opioids, whose use — licit and illicit — has exploded in recent years. Properly administered, these painkilling drugs can bring patients necessary relief. Diverted to unintended and unauthorized use, as they too often are, these highly addictive drugs function, in many cases, as a gateway drug to heroin.
Federal and state authorities have been trying to curb opioid abuse, by monitoring the supply chain more closely and requiring manufacturers to produce pills that cannot be easily crushed into powder.
This, in turn, has spawned criticism that the government’s supply-curbing effort forced numbers of addicts to seek heroin — while denying pain medication for legitimate needs. Holder usefully, if implicitly, rejected this criticism, noting that increased heroin abuse is a “symptom of the significant increase in prescription drug abuse that we’ve seen over the past decade” — in other words, addicts began turning to heroin well before the government started cracking down on prescription opioids.