Journalists, Politicians More Likely to Overdose on Heroin Than Junkies

In the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, my
colleague Jacob Sullum has done great work in calling attention to
the flat and declining trends in heroin. The short version is that
somewhere around 0.1 percent of Americans ages 12 and older use
junk in the past month – a vanishingly small number that was
exactly the same a decade ago. When it comes to 8th, 10th, and 12th
graders, the numbers for annual use are tiny to begin with
(0.6 percent or less) and substantially lower than they were in the

But what about Vermont, supposedly Ground Zero in the new heroin
epidemic? Here’s a snippet from
my latest column
, which should give much-needed
perspective on the matter:

Earlier this year, the Gov. Peter Shumlin of Vermont made news
when he devoted his annual “state of the state” address to what he
called “a full-blown heroin crisis.” Shumlin testified that “we had
nearly double the number of deaths in Vermont from heroin overdose
as the prior year.”

It’s certainly true that there can be regional spikes even if
national usage rates are flat. But according to Vermont’s
Department of Health, in 2012 there were just nine deaths
classified as “heroin involved” (a category that doesn’t mean
heroin was the sole or even the principal cause of death). Taking
the governor at his word, that means there were fewer than 18
deaths last year in Vermont in which heroin was a factor. (2013
data were not available.)

The Green Mountain State has about 626,000 people in it. It’s a
damn shame that anyone dies of a heroin overdose (I count one old
friend among the casualties), but nobody in their right mind should
be setting national or state policy based on a dozen-and-a-half

But drug panics are
like no other in American life. Thirty years ago, the drug-related
death of an NBA hopeful ushered in a long national nightmare that
we’re only barely getting around to waking up from:

The history of crusades and legislation related to drug deaths
teaches us that lawmakers should proceed with caution and resist
overreaction. In 1986, liberal Democratic lawmakers used
the high-profile, cocaine-related death of Len Bias, a college
basketball star who had signed to play with the Boston Celtics, to
show that they could be just as tough on drugs as conservative
Republicans during the “Just Say No” era. The result was a series
of mandatory-minimum sentences that had no clear effect on drug use
or black markets but helped the United States become the
biggest jailer country on the planet.

Read the whole piece
, which includes links to all the stats cited

from Hit & Run

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