Stepped-On Heroin Not the Problem

Sad to say, the death by drug overdose of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman revived ancient talk about heroin being dangerous because you just never know who’s diluted or “stepped on” the stuff, and/or what impurities have been included.

As Keith Humphreys argues emphatically at Ten Miles Square today, such talk is an obstacle to understanding and doing something about what is becoming an epidemic of overdoses from opiate use:

I talked with Harold Pollack recently about how careful research on overdoses destroyed my prior belief in “killer heroin” hype:

“There’s a very nice paper just out by Professors Shane Darke and Michael Farrell, who are two of the world’s leading experts on the topic…toxicology studies of overdosed people very rarely find that impurities played an important role…victims didn’t particularly receive high doses, either. Such findings surprised me. The fact that we’ve got 16,000 people a year dying from pure, legally-manufactured opiate analgesics shows you that it’s really not about the unpredictability of illegal markets, it’s about the drugs per se.”

The killer heroin/impure heroin narrative sounds plausible on its face, but the data completely undermine it….

I would have [kept reinforcing the myth myself],,,with confidence, at one point (particularly before the nation was flooded with pure, consistent, labeled opioids like Oxycodone and the result was…an overdose epidemic). But I would respectfully ask…everyone else to look at the data on overdoses and have a rethink. Successfully tackling the overdose crisis — which is now causing almost as many deaths in the U.S. a year as AIDS did at its peak — will not be facilitated by incorrect assumptions about the nature of the problem.

Be advised.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.