December 5th, 2016
A cluster of drug-related deaths took place in Philadelphia yesterday, with six confirmed by police last night and a seventh reported this morning.
Six of the seven bodies discovered were in the Kensington neighborhood of the city, where high levels of heroin use have been reported. Detectives told the local NBC station that they included:
“… a 24-year-old man overdosed on the 3000 block of North Broad Street, a 31-year-old woman on the 3300 block of Amber Street, a 42-year-old man on the 3300 of Kensington Avenue, a 40-year-old man on the 2800 block of Kensington Avenue, a 41-year-old man on the 2800 of D Street and a man in his 30s on the 600 block of E. Indiana Avenue.”
Each one of these deaths is a tragedy. In this context, it’s dispiriting to read some misrepresentations of the probable causes, thanks to a typical combination of law enforcement and media reactions.
The police describe a “bad batch of heroin” in circulation in the city, and media reports accordingly lead—in both their headlines and opening paragraphs—with the supposition that “heroin overdoses” are to blame for the deaths. “Heroin in Philadelphia is some of the purest in the nation ranging between 80 and 90 percent, officials explained earlier this year,” notes the NBC station.
Yet buried deeper in the reports is some other critical information. In the NBC version:
“Sometimes, the drugs are cut with dangerous chemicals like rat poison. In other cases, much stronger synthetic opioids like fentanyl or new lab-cooked derivatives are mixed in to produce a stronger high—often with deadly consequences.”
Most often, what a “bad batch” of “heroin” turns out to be is not pure heroin or anything like it, but heroin replaced by or dangerously combined with other substances: One admittedly limited recent study in Vancouver found 90 percent of “heroin” samples to contain fentanyl.
So why is it appropriate and important to point this out in the immediate wake of tragic deaths?
One reason is that as The Influence continually notes, the large majority of opioid-related deaths—at least 75 percent, and according to some figures, far more—don’t involve one drug alone. Police and media sources pointing the finger (long before toxicology tests have taken place) at “heroin overdoses” irresponsibly underemphasize the statistically dominant risk of certain drug combinations.
One high-profile example of this, as noted by Stanton Peele in a recent Influence article, was after the 2014 death of Philip Seymour Hoffman:
“… first, the widely rumored cause of his death: ‘The autopsy and coroner’s report has yet to be released, but police are confident Hoffman died from a heroin overdose.’
Ah, when will those police ever learn? The actual autopsy? ‘Medical examiner finds heroin, cocaine, benzodiazepines and amphetamine in his system.'”
Surely a key step in reducing drug-related deaths is to accurately portray the dangers to the public?
The other factor is that by significantly downplaying the role of adulterants in heroin-related (or other-drug-related, for that matter) deaths, those who publicize these events make it less likely that members of the public will arrive at a straightforward conclusion: That “bad batches” and dangerous adulterants don’t tend to be a factor for legal, regulated drugs. (For an equivalent example, take alcohol, and the many moonshine poisonings in Prohibition-era America or modern-day Pakistan.)
By perpetuating a skewed vision, the reports that follow death after opioid-related death make it harder for the public both to keep themselves safer and to recognize our desperate need for better drug policy.
And if history is any guide, there will be little follow-up if “heroin overdoses” indeed proves an inaccurate depiction of these latest deaths. Back in the 1994 “China Cat Scare,” for example, a front page article in the New York Times began:
“They call it China Cat, an exotic name for a blend of heroin so pure it promised a perfect high, but instead killed 13 people in five days.”
Yet toxicology on the 14 dead (another was added) revealed:
“two of the 14 men originally suspected of having died from taking the powerful heroin had actually died of natural causes. Four others died of overdoses of cocaine . . . . Of the eight whose deaths apparently did involve heroin, seven also had traces of cocaine in their system.”
The Paper of Record did not feature that article on its front page.