This week we learned of the sudden death of masterful actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in what appears to have been a heroin overdose. The loss of the exceptionally talented artist, who was also the father of three young children, is utterly heartbreaking. But given that Hoffman's death looks, at this point, to have been an accident resulting from his own apparent addiction -- a miserable but not uncommon happening -- it's a little hard to understand why New York police seem to be making such a strong effort to hunt down the source of Hoffman's drugs.
Whoever these drug dealers might be, they are surely no more or less evil than any other drug dealer out there who has sold an addict the substance that would go on to kill him. Yet according to CBS News, doggedly tracking down such sellers is not a normal part of these investigations. (A former NYPD detective told ABC the practice is not uncommon, but he is an individual who worked on another very high-profile case, the overdose of Smashing Pumpkins band member Jonathan Melvoin.)
So is this aggressive pursuit of the dealers a case of special celebrity treatment, and if so, to what end? There's generally no way to hold a drug dealer criminally liable for deaths caused by his product. (This is the case in New York state.) In a perverse way, we've actually insulated dealers from normal consequences of doing business by relegating what they sell to the realm of criminality. We can arrest them for dealing if we catch them; but we can't do things like penalize them for misrepresenting their product (or its purity, or lack thereof), or hold them to certain standards when it comes to whom they sell to.
I don't think more liberal drug laws would, in themselves, have saved Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Russell Brand suggests. As Brand himself also points out, the power of addiction is incredibly strong, and it's tough to imagine that simply lessening the stigma around the problem would have been enough to keep Hoffman from the substance he apparently craved desperately. The fact that police reportedly found buprenorphine, a drug used to treat heroin, in Hoffman's apartment, suggests he had already sought treatment for addiction. And ironically, going off a medically-prescribed opiate like buprenorphine after a period of being "clean" can be a factor in an overdose; it leaves the user with a lower tolerance if he returns to his original drug of choice.
Still, the takeaway lesson from Hoffman's death, if there is one, surely must have less to do with the particular individuals who furnished Hoffman with drugs, and more to do with the depressing reality that this was an unexceptional occurrence: 100 Americans die of drug overdoses every single day. That's not a crime problem. It's a health problem. Admitting as much won't save every addict, but it will increase our odds of doing something a little more useful about it each day.
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