A long line of heroin deaths, Baltimore to N.Y.

Philip Seymour Hoffman's overdose points to the enduring power of the opiate

If confirming evidence of the ruinous power of opiate addiction was needed, we now have the wasted life of the genius actor Philip Seymour Hoffman — George Willis Jr. in "Scent of a Woman," Phil Parma in "Magnolia," Art Howe in "Moneyball," and a superb Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman" on Broadway less than two years ago.

Hoffman was accomplished and respected, hailed as the greatest actor of his generation, and he presumably had wealth. But clearly none of those things was as powerful as the drug he injected into his body, or the pain he was trying to relieve.

He joined a long, horrible line of Americans — most of them remembered only by family and friends — who destroyed themselves because they could not overcome heroin addiction. Many of them died of overdoses, injecting a substance without fully knowing its chemistry and potency, reportedly a possibility in Hoffman's death.

Some died of AIDS. Some died of exposure on the street. Some were gunned down because they could not pay for their drugs or because they used themselves what they should have sold to others. Heroin is the common, dominating force in all that loss of life.

The death of the Oscar-winning actor in New York City at 46 brings me back to several moments in a reporting career — too many to count — when heroin was the central player in a story. It almost didn't seem possible that one substance could wreak so much havoc in the lives of so many, across an entire city.

There was a woman who nodded off, as heroin addicts do, on a couch in a West Baltimore rowhouse while her 8-year-old son went out with dealers at night to earn a few bucks holding their drugs for them.

There was a woman in Pigtown at a kitchen table, weeping-screaming about her kids, including an infant, being taken from her by social services authorities because she had been using heroin while pregnant.

There was the young man from Dundalk who was so infested with heroin he could not live in prison without it; his parents sold almost everything they owned, including the living room furniture, to pay for their son's habit. That young man had no business being in prison; he should have been hospitalized. He eventually died of an overdose behind bars, a victim of the costly and foolish war on drugs that treats addicts as criminals rather than as patients.

I first saw the pain of the heroin disease in a house in Little Italy three decades ago, my first encounter with a Baltimore man trying to beat his addiction. He was going through withdrawal with the help of a priest, and it was a scary, physical exorcism. The addict, then in his 30s, was a completely likable fellow with an easy sense of humor. From what I could see, he'd come from a good family — one of those big, nurturing Italian-American families, with a mother and brothers who loved him.

And yet he'd been using heroin since shortly after high school, shooting it into his veins.

I was baffled by the heroin thing, starting with its self-inflicted nature: The general fear of needles, ingrained during childhood, was easily overcome by the physical craving for a drug. The power of the drug was formidable. Addicts were willing to do almost anything to get it, day after day.

They'd rob an elderly person. They'd rob their own relatives.

They'd lie, over and over again.

And constantly disappoint the people who loved them.

That was all new to me. But that was Baltimore, and it's still Baltimore, with multiple generations of heroin users by now. By 2012, city health officials estimated that about 48,000 residents — or about one in every 13 — were addicted to heroin. That was an improvement from 2000, when the estimate was one in 11.

The practice of possessing and selling heroin is still illegal, so the city's drug commerce stays in place with all of its collateral damage to families, to whole neighborhoods, to the city's national profile. Heroin has been with us so long, part of Baltimore's modern identity, we forget or take for granted how so many of the city's problems are rooted in this profoundly frustrating, stubborn and costly problem.

Overdose deaths started to rise again in Baltimore during the last couple of years, and a batch of heroin laced with the powerful painkiller fentanyl is suspected in numerous deaths here and along the East Coast in recent weeks. Hoffman's might have been one of them.

It's madness.

Even when the victim is a famous movie actor, most of the rest of us — that is, the lucky who've never had heroin infest our families — stand off to the side and shake our heads at the wasting of life. There's anger and sadness. You feel like Willy Loman's widow, Linda, at his grave: "Why did you do it? I search and search and I search and I can't understand it ... "

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

drodricks@baltsun.com

 

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