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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 7 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 06
Actor's death reveals the double standard associated with heroin
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Actor's death reveals the double standard associated with heroin

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Associate Editor

Anyone you talk to will tell you that they think as an actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was a genius. That's because he was. Hoffman was probably the greatest character actor of his generation.

And he didn't shy away from roles that cast him as a Gay man either. He played the completely stunted boom operator Scotty in Boogie Nights (1997), Miss Rusty the drag queen in Flawless (1999) and the clever and nuanced Truman Capote in Capote (2005).

'When I play somebody Gay, I never think of it as 'I'm playing a Gay character',' Hoffman told Michael Musto back in 2005. 'It's interesting to play all the different aspects of the character. There's something else about the character that's pulling me there that I identify with.'

Yes, Hoffman was a genius. And he was fearless. He was widely admired. But he was also a heroin addict.

Philip Seymour Hoffman died of an apparent drug overdose at his Manhattan apartment on Sunday. He was just 46-years-old.

INVESTIGATING A HIGH PROFILE CASE
When police arrived at Hoffman's fourth-floor Manhattan apartment, they found the actor, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, his glasses still resting on his head, lying on the bathroom floor with a syringe in his left arm. Investigators discovered close to 50 envelopes of heroin in the apartment, many of them stamped with the words 'Ace of Spades' in white lettering inside. Others were stamped with an ace of hearts playing card image. They also found used syringes, prescription drugs and empty plastic bags used to hold drugs.

Preliminary tests Tuesday showed the heroin recovered from Hoffman's apartment did not contain fentanyl, a powerful narcotic used to treat cancer patients' pain. Police officials tested the drugs to see if it contained fentanyl because if it had, then his death would be investigated as attempted murder. Last week, Maryland officials said heroin tainted with fentanyl had claimed at least 37 lives since September. And last month, at least 22 people in western Pennsylvania died after using heroin mixed with fentanyl.

When I first learned that fentanyl, and other narcotics, are sometimes added to heroin (which can be 10 to 100 times more potent than morphine) I thought about how dangerous it is and how scary that must be to inject it into your bloodstream. The power of addiction is just that - powerful. But then I began to think: 37 people in Maryland and 22 in Pennsylvania and ... how many arrests have been made? Is this a priority?'

The sad truth is - no, it is not a priority. Well, that is, until over 20 people die in a very short period of time.

A western Pennsylvania man identified as Tywon Laniel Newby, 39, was arrested recently on drug charges as part of an investigation into the spate of heroin overdose deaths in western Pennsylvania. Authorities seized more than 2,000 bags of suspected heroin from Newby's home, including a shoebox with 48 bricks of suspected heroin with bags stamped with the name 'Sky High.'

As for Baltimore, the DEA has said authorities in other states have arrested some distributors that could help advance the Maryland probe.

But the elephant in the room here is that nobody really seemed to give a shit about any of this until Hoffman's death, revealing a few ugly truths about the way we report, investigate, and prosecute drug-related cases in America.

Nearly 80 people combined die of heroin overdoses in Maryland and Pennsylvania and few arrests have been made, media barely covered these deaths, and now, potentially because of the widespread reporting of the Hoffman's alleged overdose, on the street, word of a new, potent drug travels quickly. Other addicts will most likely seek it out, eager for an ever-elusive 'better' high.

That's the sick thing about addiction. When addicts know there are heroin bags that are killing people or making them overdose, they become known as 'good bags.'

But Philip Seymour Hoffman wasn't just a dead junkie. He is what the police and media sometimes refer to as a 'high profile' case or individual. The public will be upset. People will be sad. And authorities don't like that and the mayors don't need that kind of attention. So, instead of doing nothing, they actively investigate the case and find out who sold the victim drugs. Something that junkies who are virtually unknown by the public aren't afforded.

On Tuesday, a law enforcement source told CNN that the night before Hoffman died, he withdrew $1,200 from a grocery store ATM near his apartment. Hoffman got the money in six transactions Saturday night.

Then, another witness told investigators he saw the Oscar-winning actor talking to two men wearing messenger bags about 8 p.m.

Police are also reviewing surveillance video, including video of a restaurant where Hoffman had brunch Saturday morning with two people.

Hoffman was a celebrated actor who also happens to be a straight, white male. So police sprang into action; offering results that would never happen in poorer neighborhoods. Four people believed to be connected to the drugs found in Hoffman's apartment were arrested late Tuesday night. During the raid that led to the arrest of the three men and one woman, police recovered 350 small plastic bags of what is believed to be heroin. The bags of alleged heroin were branded 'black list' and 'red bull' - not the same brands found in Hoffman's apartment.

CNN identified the suspects being investigated in connection with drugs sold to Hoffman as Juliana Luchkiw, 22; Max Rosenblum, 22; Robert Vineberg, 57; and Thomas Cushman, 48.

Luchkiw and Rosenblum were charged with criminal possession of a controlled substance in the seventh degree, misdemeanors, while Vineberg was charged with criminal possession of a controlled substance in the third degree, a felony.

All three of their attorneys entered pleas of not guilty Wednesday.

Vineberg was found to have the actor's phone number stored in his cell phone and police discovered the largest amount of what is believed to be heroin in his apartment. Vineberg's attorney said that he hopes prosecutors will not use his client as a scapegoat.

Luchkiw's attorney says his client was simply in the 'wrong place at (the) wrong time.'

The Manhattan District Attorney's Office declined to prosecute Cushman because there was no evidence he had any control over the drugs.

SOCIAL STIGMA: CRACK VS. METH VS. HEROIN
Hoffman is the second high-profile actor whose recent death has been linked to the class A drug. Cory Monteith, 31-year-old star of hit TV series Glee, died of an accidental heroin and alcohol overdose in a Vancouver, B.C. hotel room last July.

The difference between the way the two actor's deaths are reported on in the media and treated by investigators is not at all how your typical crystal queen or crack or base head are treated - or mistreated as it were.

In the case of both Hoffman and Monteith, the men were greatly mourned and the question is asked, 'What went wrong?' or 'How could this happen to them?'

The answer is simple: The same way it happens to thousands found dead and friendless, also with needles in their arms.

But in the case of affluent famous people, that's not good enough. We look at them as 'responsible users' and if something goes wrong we mourn the tragedy. Offices, schools, hospitals, and prisons are packed with illegal drug use. Proving that their illegality is no deterrent; if everyone who was using or at the most, addicted, were to be arrested the courts could not handle proper enforcement and the prisons would be too small to house the 'criminals.'

In both Hoffman's and Monteith's cases their friends knew that they were drug addicts. The police likely would have done nothing had they known, however - the spoils of the spoiled.

It is no secret that crystal meth is still prevalent in Gay male society. What once used to be consumed out in the open is now taboo. Nobody talks about it much anymore and so it has been driven into the shadows where 'they' can do as much as they want as long as 'we' aren't bothered by it.

Crack cocaine carries a stigma. While casual pot-smoking and cocaine use are tolerated, crack is often considered to be on a different level. It is known as a 'hard' drug, like heroin.

Many people think that crack is such a hard drug that using it once could cause a user to act recklessly, even dangerously, become addicted, or die. However, most of the claims about crack cocaine's potential for destruction have proven exaggerated or flat-out false.

Despite racialized images of crack users, data from National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reveals that people reporting cocaine use in 1991 were 75% white, 15% black, and 10% hispanic. People who admitted to using crack were 52% white, 38% black, and 10% Hispanic. It is also true to say that whites have a long-standing trend to use drugs at rates higher than blacks. Still, in 2009, the U.S. Sentencing Commission released data showing no drug matches crack in terms of racially biased convictions. According to the data, 79% of 5,669 sentenced crack offenders were black, 10% were Hispanic, and only 10% were white.

Actor Russell Brand, a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, said it best in a piece he wrote for The Guardian, 'Whilst routinely described as tragic, Hoffman's death is insufficiently sad to be left un-supplemented in the mandatory posthumous scramble for salacious garnish; we will now be subjected to mourn-ography posing as analysis. I can assure you that there is no as yet undiscovered riddle in his domestic life or sex life, the man was a drug addict and his death inevitable.'

'Addiction is a mental illness around which there is a great deal of confusion, which is hugely exacerbated by the laws that criminalize drug addicts,' Brand wrote in commentary about Hoffman's death for the Guardian. 'If drugs are illegal people who use drugs are criminals. We have set our moral compass on this erroneous premise, and we have strayed so far off course that the landscape we now inhabit provides us with no solutions and greatly increases the problem.'

'This is an important moment in history; we know that prohibition does not work,' he said. 'We know that the people who devise drug laws are out of touch and have no idea how to reach a solution. Do they even have the inclination? The fact is, their methods are so gallingly ineffective that it is difficult not to deduce that they are deliberately creating the worst imaginable circumstances to maximise the harm caused by substance misuse.'

According to the actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman's death is a reminder that addiction is indiscriminate. That it is sad, irrational and hard to understand. What it also clearly demonstrates is that we are a culture that does not know how to treat its addicts.

'Would Hoffman have died if this disease were not so enmeshed in stigma? If we weren't invited to believe that people who suffer from addiction deserve to suffer? Would he have OD'd if drugs were regulated, controlled and professionally administered,' Brand asks. 'Most importantly, if we insisted as a society that what is required for people who suffer from this condition is an environment of support, tolerance and understanding.'

'The troubling message behind Philip Seymour Hoffman's death, which we all feel without articulating, is that it was unnecessary and we know that something could be done,' says Brand. 'We also know what that something is and yet, for some traditional, prejudicial, stupid reason we don't do it.'

HOFFMAN'S DEATH HIGHLIGHTS RENEWED INTEREST IN HEROIN
'Heroin is a growing epidemic,' U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spokesman Joseph Moses told media in the wake of Hoffman's suspected overdose.

U.S. heroin-overdose deaths rose by 45 percent from 2006 to 2010, and the amount of heroin seized each year on the Mexican border was up nearly four times from 2008 to 2012. In addition, first time users are younger than they were years ago and it's not in the cities anymore, it's gone into rural areas, into suburbia.

New York once had a reputation as the heroin capital of the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. Indelibly tied to the spread of HIV in the 1980s, use of heroin became a taboo as certain death and for its potent addictiveness.

But the DEA says that is changing because of production in Mexico, increased smuggling and users increasingly addicted to prescription opiates then swapping to cheaper heroin.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health said last September that the number of Americans who had used heroin in the past year had risen from 373,000 in 2007 to 669,000 in 2012.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse says 4.2 million Americans have tried heroin at least once during their lives, and 23 percent of individuals who use heroin become dependent.

Police have also impounded more and more caches. According to Huffington Post, in New York only last week 13 kilos (33 pounds) of heroin worth $8 million were seized in the Bronx and also impounded were hundreds of thousands of glassine bags stamped with brand names such as 'NFL,' 'iPhone' or 'government shutdown.'

HOW HEROIN WORKS AND WHY YOU DIE
Drug overdose deaths in the United States have risen steadily since 1970. Painkillers actually kill more Americans than heroin and cocaine combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control, but heroin is still one of the No. 1 killers of illegal drug users.

Heroin can be smoked, snorted or eaten. However, smoking or eating destroys some of the drug and mutes its effects. Because of that, heroin is most often mixed with water and injected.

Injecting heroin minimizes the time between when the drug is taken and effects are felt. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the effects of heroin are almost immediate when a user injects the drug.

When someone takes heroin there is an immediate rush, followed by their body feeling an extreme form of relaxation and a decreased sense of pain. Inside the body, the heroin turns into morphine. Morphine has a chemical structure similar to endorphins, which are the chemicals your brain makes when you feel stressed out or are in pain. Endorphins inhibit your neurons from firing, so they halt pain and create a good feeling.

Morphine, acting like your endorphins, binds to molecules in your brain called opioid receptors. When those receptors are blocked, that creates a high.

Most people die from heroin overdoses when their bodies forget to breathe. When you are sleeping, your body naturally remembers to breathe. In the case of a heroin overdose, you fall asleep and essentially your body forgets.

A heroin overdose can also cause your blood pressure to dip significantly and cause your heart to fail. Studies show intravenous heroin users are 300 times more likely to die from infectious endocarditis, an infection of the surface of the heart.

Heroin use can also cause an arrhythmia - a problem with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat. Heroin use can also cause pulmonary edema. That's when the heart can't pump blood to the body well.

Studies suggest instantaneous death, like what may have happened in Hoffman's case, is unusual. Such deaths, where a needle and syringe are still in place, would be considered instant by scientists. One study showed this accounts for only 14% of heroin-related deaths.

There are some common social characteristics in heroin deaths that make Hoffman a typical case. Most fatalities involve men; those who have struggled with other drugs or alcohol and other drugs or alcohol are often present.

While many are single, most users die in their homes or in the company of another person.

As one would imagine, an addict has a much higher chance of dying if they leave treatment, and the risk of death is higher for newly clean heroin addicts.

In a particularly puzzling find, long-term users who die from overdoses are likely to have heroin levels no higher than those who survive.

Statistics suggest that newer heroin users aren't the ones most likely to die. One study showed only 17% of the deaths studied were in new heroin users. However, newer users can overdose because they don't know how much drug to take, compared to experienced users.

A person's chances of dying from heroin use increase dramatically after 20 years of use. Studies show that after 30 years of use, 16% of heroin users have died, compared with 6.5% of cocaine users and 1.5% of meth users.

Hoffman spoke to 60 Minutes in 2006 about going into rehab after being addicted to a variety of substances in his 20s. Last year, after being sober for 23 years, he entered rehab again after relapsing with pills and heroin.

Drugs are an equal opportunity killer. Rob Lowe, in a tweet this week about Hoffman's death put it brilliantly, saying, 'addiction is a disease and not a lifestyle choice, and further emphasize the dangers related to any level of drug use.'

'You are not smarter than your drug,' tweeted Lowe, who opened up about going to rehab in his 2011 book Stories, I Only Tell My Friends. 'Or more knowledgeable, power, anger or anything else. Addiction is an equal opportunity killer.'

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