Hoffman and the Hype about “Killer Heroin”

Within hours of the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, rumors spread that this magnificent actor had been taken from us by “killer heroin”. The threat of a batch of impurity-laced, unusually potent heroin is a staple of opioid overdose news coverage and popular debate. But it’s usually hype.

Hoffman’s tragic overdose was absolutely the norm: He died from a combination of drugs, not from impure or unusually strong heroin. The benzodiazepines may have been particularly lethal in that they, like alcohol, seem able to lower acute tolerance for opioids, thereby turning a user’s standard dose into an “overdose”.

Two people who will be totally unsurprised by Hoffman’s toxicological test results are addiction researchers Shane Darke and Michael Farrell:

If there’s one thing we can quite clearly say about heroin deaths, it’s that impurities are rarely, if ever, found or are relevant to the death. Those that are found are typically innocuous substances, such as sucrose.

Data on overdose deaths from legally-manufactured prescription opioids are the other reason to doubt the killer heroin hype that so regularly grips the media. Prescription painkillers are consistently pure and of knowable dose, yet they kill 5 times as many Americans a year as does heroin.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.