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Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, who also struggled with addiction. (Photo: United Artists)

The Only Thing Worse Than Legal Heroin Is Illegal Heroin

• February 03, 2014 • 3:12 PM

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, who also struggled with addiction. (Photo: United Artists)

Years of reporting in Pacific Standard have led us to one conclusion: Decriminalizing drug use will save money—and lives.

Since the shocking news yesterday morning that we lost one of the greatest actors of his generation, as much has been written about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s work on both stage and screen as what was likely his undoing: addiction. Investigators called to the scene of his death reportedly found the 46-year-old actor on the bathroom floor of a Greenwich Village apartment he was renting as an office with a syringe in his arm and an envelope nearby containing heroin. Hoffman, perhaps best known for his Best Actor-winning role as the eponymous lead in 2005’s Capote, who himself struggled with addiction and eventually succumbed to it, was discovered by a friend around 11:30 a.m. Sunday. Over the less than two days since, we’ve learned that police have removed between 50 and 70 bags of heroin, used syringes, and prescription drugs from the apartment. We’ve also learned that just about everybody with a Twitter account or Internet connection has something to say about drugs and drug use.

“Every single person in my timeline who says addiction is a choice gets the block. There’s no room 4 that kind of ignorance. Not interested.”

Like many of my friends and former colleagues—who have written moving tributes to Phil, as he reportedly liked to be called and used to be credited back in the early ’90s when he was just getting his start—I was saddened to learn of Hoffman’s passing over the weekend. Minutes later, though, I was outraged to discover people in my Twitter feed shaming drug users. (But you know what? That outrage didn’t mute the sadness I felt over Hoffman’s death; it didn’t make the tragedy any less tragic.) I understood the frustration in Martha Plimpton’s note, which, with hundreds of retweets, appeared in my feed repeatedly: “Every single person in my timeline who says addiction is a choice gets the block. There’s no room 4 that kind of ignorance. Not interested.” (As far as I can tell, Plimpton’s only addiction is to Downton Abbey. Who could fault her for that?) But I wasn’t going to block anyone. I think this is an argument we need to have—on Twitter, around the dinner table, in courtrooms. And we need to have it now.

That said, I don’t know that anyone will be able to convince me that the best way to go about solving our drug problems requires anything less than full legalization. Laws, we’ve discovered, don’t do a very good job of stopping people from using drugs. And they certainly can’t end addiction. They just make things worse: By crowding our prisons, redirecting law enforcement, pushing people to use untested street product, and more. You can read about the larger War on Drugs, and how it’s costing taxpayers about $51 billion every year, elsewhere. Today, because of Philip Seymour Hoffman, we’re focused on heroin.

This morning, Jeff Deeney, a recovering addict and social worker, wrote convincingly for The Atlantic about the need for legal injection sites. “If Philip Seymour Hoffman had taken his last bags to a legal injecting space, would he still be alive?” Deeney asks. “Had he overdosed there, medical staff on call might have reversed it with Naloxone. Had he acquired an abscess or other skin infection, he could have sought nonjudgmental medical intervention. Perhaps injection site staff could have directed him back to treatment.” With current laws in place, legal injection sites in the United States are a non-starter; don’t even consider trying to get one approved.

Elsewhere in the world, legal injection sites have been wildly successful. We’ve written a lot about them in the pages of Pacific Standard, and all of our reporting—from Afghanistan to Vancouver, where government-approved researchers are providing addicts with free heroin—has come to a common conclusion: legalization is the only way to go.

In early 2011, Michael Scott Moore wrote about how the war in Afghanistan was flooding the market with pure, cheap heroin, and how different countries responded:

Russia seems bent on an American-style drug war instead of trying to quell demand. Meanwhile, European countries from Britain to Portugal have shown some success in legalizing heroin and even dispensing it to addicts through maintenance programs. It sounds crazy at first, but the effect — in trial after trial — is to rob drugs of their criminal glamour and reduce usage overall. And legalization can drive away gangsters.

In Portugal, five years of decriminalization have led not to drug tourists in Lisbon but a decline in the use of almost every drug but marijuana. Heroin use in America went up during the same period — precisely because some of those poppies from Afghanistan have found their way across the ocean.

Just days later, Moore elaborated on the British plan to put in place a controlled distribution system for getting heroin to addicts:

A few British politicians have revived the idea of dispensing taxpayer-funded heroin. Spurred by successful trials in the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe, the idea that governments can reduce both addiction and street crime — and maybe bleed black markets dry — by managing drug distribution has gained momentum. “It is time to replace our failed war on drugs with a strict system of legal regulation,” a British MP named Bob Ainsworth said at the end of last year. “We must take the trade away from organized criminals and hand it to the control of doctors and pharmacists.”

Dr. Peter Carter went further. The general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing said last spring that the NHS should set up public consumption rooms where addicts can walk in for a regular fix. Carter says that pilot “shooting galleries” in Britain have not only drawn addicts out of darkened stairwells and parks, they’ve reduced crime.

Trials of supervised heroin rooms by researchers at King’s College in London have shown that three-quarters of the 127 addicts involved spent far less on street drugs — from £300 (about $460) down to £50 a week, on average — and the number of crimes they committed also fell dramatically.

Some of us on this side of the pond knew that these programs could be successful years earlier. In 2007, Vince Beiser wrote about Vancouver’s Insite, a radical (in 2003, when the clinic was first opened) experiment to re-frame drug use as a health issue instead of a criminal one.

Impelled by the horror show of the Downtown East Side, prodded by activists and convinced by reams of academic studies, the police and city government have agreed to provide hard drug users with their paraphernalia, a place to use it and even, for a few, the drugs themselves.

More than 2 million syringes are handed out free every year. Clean mouthpieces for crack pipes are provided at taxpayers’ expense. Around 4,000 opiate addicts get prescription methadone. Thousands come to the injection site every year.

On top of that, health officials just wrapped up a pilot program in which addicts were given prescription heroin. And it doesn’t stop there. The mayor is pushing for a “stimulant maintenance” program to provide prescription alternatives for cocaine and methamphetamine addicts. Emboldened advocates for drug users are even calling for a “supervised inhalation site” for crack smokers.

So how did Vancouver’s experiment play out? In the middle of last year, we revisited the storytwice. It’s still saving money. And lives.

Nicholas Jackson
Nicholas Jackson is the digital director of Pacific Standard. The former digital editorial director at Outside, he has also worked for The Atlantic, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Texas Monthly, Slate, and other publications, both online and in print. Reach him at njackson@psmag.com. Follow him on Twitter @nbj914.

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