There was an atmosphere of disbelief yesterday when the news broke that actor Philip Seymour Hoffman had been found dead in his West Village apartment. He was just 46 years old. That he may have recently fallen off the wagon and taken refuge in drink and drugs added a note of desperate sadness to the gloom. And then came mention of the dread word heroin.
Heroin is the stuff of the devil, we are told. It kills people, ruins lives, blights society. But it does not: what kills and blights is that society has handed control of production, distribution and sale of this drug to organised criminality. As Nick Davies put it, "There is no drug known to man which becomes safer when its production and distribution are handed over to criminals".
During the USA's flirtation with prohibition, production of alcoholic drinks was handed over to the mob. Much of what was produced was adulterated with other substances, notably methylated spirits, which can cause blindness. This it did. It was not the alcohol in the drink that caused blindness, but that is the logic employed by those who seek to frighten the population over heroin.
Heroin is highly addictive: that much is not in dispute. But, administered without the adulterants that are routinely added to bulk up what is sold (Davies lists paracetomol, drain cleaner, sand, sugar, starch, powdered milk, talcum powder, coffee, brick dust, cement dust, gravy powder, face powder and curry powder, to which, more recently, warfarin can be added), and by medical professionals, it is not dangerous.
And overdosing, when you know the purity of the heroin being administered, is very difficult to do. It is not so hard when you have no idea whether what your dealer supplied is 20% or 90% pure. Likewise the side-effects: unadulterated heroin might give occasional nausea and constipation. With all the padding, the scope for bodily damage is literally limitless. That is when it becomes dangerous.
Moreover, if your heroin has been padded out with other ingredients, the only way to get a truly effective hit is to inject it. And that is what, if Police reports are to be believed, Hoffman was doing. Some people are drawn to addiction. Of those, some take their addition to excess. These are ideal targets for those who peddle illegal drugs - over which nobody exercises quality control of any kind.
So another life is lost, to be blamed on the use of heroin. Thus the so-called "war on drugs" will be perpetuated. The lessons of prohibition - that it is the criminality, not the drug, that does the real damage - will remain unlearnt. So, a little further down the line, there will be another well-known figure lying dead in his or her bathroom. Heroin will take the blame, and all will go on very much as before.
RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman.