Editorial: Time to give drug dealers the death penalty and life sentences

February 12, 2014
Court-gavel

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tragic death comes amid nationwide heroin/opiate epidemic

By Brandon Reid
Senior Assistant Editor

The tragic death of Academy Award-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman should serve as a wake-up call that the time has come for harsher penalties for those who choose to make a living taking the lives of others.

Feb. 2, Hoffman, 46, was found dead on the bathroom floor of his West Village, Manhattan, office apartment. He had a syringe in his left arm, and 73 bags of heroin were found near his body.

Results of an autopsy were inconclusive, although Hoffman had reportedly withdrawn more than $1,000 from a bank machine near his office apartment just hours before his death.

Feb. 4, four people were taken into custody at the Manhattan apartment of jazz musician Robert Vineberg and questioned in connection with possibly selling drugs to Hoffman. A 22-year-old DJ and his 22-year-old girlfriend were also arrested during the raid. Reportedly, 350 bags of heroin were found at Vineberg’s apartment at the time of the arrests.

Vineberg, who is being held at Rikers Island prison, said he is being made a “scapegoat” in the wake of Hoffman’s death. Vineberg, who once played with Amy Winehouse, David Bowie, Tom Jones and Paul Simon, has denied selling Hoffman the 73 packets of heroin. However, according to a report by the London Telegraph, Vineberg — who also struggles with addiction — had last seen Hoffman in October and spoke to him in December. Vineberg alleged Hoffman was a “hard-core” addict who was “injecting 10 bags of heroin every day,” according to the Telegraph.

In a front-page obituary Feb. 2, the New York Times referred to Hoffman as “perhaps the most ambitious and widely admired American actor of his generation.”

Hoffman won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2005 for his role in the biographical film Capote. He also had been nominated for three Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor and three Tony Awards for his work in theater.

Some of Hoffman’s notable screen credits include Scent of a Woman (1992), Boogie Nights (1997), The Big Lebowski (1998), Patch Adams (2000), Red Dragon (2002), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Almost Famous (2000), Red Dragon (2002), Punch-Drunk Love (2002), Cold Mountain (2003), Capote (2005), Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), The Savages (2007), Doubt (2008), Moneyball (2011) and The Master (2012). He made his feature film directorial debut in 2010 with Jack Goes Boating.

Hoffman was also an accomplished theater actor and director, receiving Tony Award nominations, including two for Best Leading Actor in True West (2000) and Death of a Salesman (2012); and one for Best Featured Actor in Long Day’s Journey into Night (2003).

Hoffman leaves behind his longtime partner, costume designer Mimi O’Donnell, and three children — Cooper, 10, Tallulah, 7, and Willa, 5.

Hoffman revealed in a 2006 CBS interview that he had suffered from drug and alcohol abuse following graduation from college. He went to rehab for drug and alcohol addiction, recovering at age 22. In the 2006 interview, he said he had abused “anything I could get my hands on. I liked it all.”

More than 20 years later, in May 2013, Hoffman checked into a rehab program for about 10 days as a result of his struggles with prescription pills and heroin. Nine months later, Feb. 2, 2014, he joined the thousands of Americans who have lost their lives to opioid overdose in the past decade.

Opioid overdose on the rise

According to drugwarfacts.org: “There can be no doubt … that fatal opioid overdose, long a chronic health problem in the United States, is now a rapidly growing one. National surveillance data suggest that almost 83,000 Americans died from this form of overdose between 1999 to 2005, with over 16,000 fatalities in 2005 alone. Opioid overdose death has seen a sharp increase over the last decade, especially in the category of overdose from prescription medications. Because of gaps in the surveillance system, the actual figure is likely to be substantially higher.”

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, an estimated 16 million people worldwide used opiates — opium, morphine, heroin and synthetic opiates — in 2008. The 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported 153,000 heroin users in the U.S. in 2007. Other estimates give figures as high as 900,000. The mortality rate of heroin addicts is estimated to be as high as 20 times that of the rest of the population.

The website for the Foundation for a Drug-Free World, drugfreeworld.org, explained: “The image of a listless young heroin addict collapsed in a filthy, dark alley is obsolete. Today, the young addict could be 12 years old, play video games and enjoy the music of his generation. He could appear smart, stylish and bear none of the common traces of heroin use, such as needle marks on his arm.

Because it is available in various forms that are easier to consume and more affordable, heroin today is more tempting than ever. Between 1995 and 2002, the number of teenagers in America, aged 12 to 17, who used heroin at some point in their lives increased by 300 percent.

A young person who might think twice about putting a needle in his arm may more readily smoke or sniff the same drug. But this is falsely reassuring and may give one the idea that there is less risk. The truth is that heroin in all its forms is dangerous and addictive.”

Heroin’s effects

The Foundation for a Drug-Free World website describes the short-term effects of heroin as follows: “The initial effects of heroin include a surge of sensation — a ‘rush.’ This is often accompanied by a warm feeling of the skin and a dry mouth. Sometimes, the initial reaction can include vomiting or severe itching.

After these initial effects fade, the user becomes drowsy for several hours. The basic body functions such as breathing and heartbeat slow down.

Within hours after the drug effects have decreased, the addict’s body begins to crave more. If he does not get another fix, he will begin to experience withdrawal. Withdrawal includes the extreme physical and mental symptoms which are experienced if the body is not supplied again with the next dose of heroin. Withdrawal symptoms include restlessness, aches and pains in the bones, diarrhea, vomiting and severe discomfort.

The intense high a user seeks lasts only a few minutes. With continued use, he needs increasing amounts of the drug just to feel ‘normal.’”

Long-term side effects of heroin use include bad teeth, inflammation of the gums, constipation, cold sweats, itching, weakening of the immune system, coma, respiratory (breathing) illnesses, muscular weakness, partial paralysis, reduced sexual capacity and long-term impotence in men, menstrual disturbance in women, inability to achieve orgasm (women and men), loss of memory and intellectual performance, introversion, depression, pustules on the face, loss of appetite and insomnia.

The Foundation for a Drug-Free World website added: “The effects on the body from continued use of this drug are very destructive. Frequent injections can cause collapsed veins and can lead to infections of the blood vessels and heart valves. Tuberculosis can result from the general poor condition of the body. Arthritis is another long-term result of heroin addiction.

The addict lifestyle — where heroin users often share their needles — leads to AIDS and other contagious infections. It is estimated that of the 35,000 new hepatitis C2 (liver disease) infections each year in the United States, over 70 percent are from drug users who use needles.”

The Foundation for a Drug-Free World also reports that “Opiates, mainly heroin, account for 18 percent of the admissions for drug and alcohol treatment in the U.S.”

Local drug statistics

Statistics suggest the United States is mired in a nation wide heroin and prescription drug epidemic — and Rockford and Winnebago County are not immune from the scourge of these drugs.

The most recent Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA) Crime and Risk Factor Data for Winnebago County (for 2000 to 2009), available at www.icjia.org, show the following with regard to drugs in the area:

• Cannabis arrests — 821 in 2000, 831 in 2009, with a peak of 1,044 in 2007;

• Controlled Substance arrests — 520 arrests in 2000, 432 in 2009, with a peak of 648 in 2006;

• Hypodermic Syringes and Needles Act arrests — Eight arrests in 2000, with a peak of 71 in 2009 (the previous high was 48 in 2008);

• Drug Paraphernalia Act arrests — 97 in 2000, 162 in 2009, with a peak of 348 in 2006;

• Total drug arrests — 1,446 in 2000, 1,496 in 2009, with a peak of 2,063 in 2006;

• Drug treatment admissions — 5,198 in 2000, 2,880 in 2009, with a peak of 5,797 in 2001;

• Illicit drug treatment admissions — 2,921 in 2000, 2,054 in 2009, with a peak of 3,795 in 2006; and

• New drug offense admissions — 216 in 2000, 212 in 2009, with a peak of 247 in 2008.

A Dec. 3, 2013, Rockford Police Department report showed 731 drug/narcotic arrests and 315 drug equipment violations for the period of Jan. 1-Nov. 30, 2013.

Statistics clearly show we are losing the “War on Drugs,” particularly the war against heroin and opiates.

Heroin’s origins and street names

Speaking of war, considering more than 90 percent of the world’s opium supply came from Afghanistan at the time U.S. military involvement began there in 2001, it is puzzling that the rise in opiate addiction in the United States corresponds almost directly with U.S. military involvement in the region. Maybe our hidden agenda in the aftermath of 9/11 in chasing down Osama bin Laden and the Taliban extended beyond oil. Reports have also suggested some U.S. troops may have became hooked on the drug while stationed in Afghanistan.

Opium has a total export value of $4 billion in Afghanistan. According to reports, almost three-quarters of that money goes to traffickers, while about a quarter goes to Afghan opium farmers.

Meanwhile, a Feb. 4 report in the London Telegraph noted a sharp increase in heroin trafficking from South America, primarily Mexico, between 2008 and 2012.

According to the Telegraph: “The amount of heroin seized annually along America’s Southwestern border has increased nearly four-fold between 2008 and 2012, from 558.8 kg (1,232 pounds) to 2,091 kg (4,610 pounds) per year, a sign that smuggling operations are on the rise, the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) said.

Ninety-five percent of the heroin smuggled into the United States originates in South America, much of it in Mexico, the agency said.

Meanwhile, fatal heroin overdoses have increased 45 percent from 2006 to 2010, with 3,038 such deaths reported that year, and numbers are believed to still be on the rise, the agency said.”

The Telegraph also reported that “Authorities in the Northeast said they have seen a rash of fatal overdoses in recent months attributed to a deadly brand of heroin laced with fentanyl, an opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin.

Law enforcement sources told Reuters investigators were trying to determine whether the heroin that is suspected of killing Hoffman … might have been laced with fentanyl.”

The Telegraph also reported: “The increasing levels of U.S. heroin use, which has reached epidemic proportions during the past five years, stems from a corresponding spike in abuse of prescription opiate-based painkillers, such as oxycodone, Drug Enforcement Administration officials said.

Many individuals who start out abusing oxycodone turn eventually to heroin as they build up a tolerance to the pain pills and find that they can buy heroin far more cheaply than prescription medications on the black market, the officials said.

“‘Oxy is much more expensive to get than heroin,’ said Sarah Pullen, a special DEA agent in Los Angeles. ‘Prescription drug abuse really took hold about 10 years ago, and about five years ago, we really started to see heroin abuse pick up.’”

As reported by the Foundation for a Drug-Free World: “Heroin (like opium and morphine) is made from the resin of poppy plants. Milky, sap-like opium is first removed from the pod of the poppy flower. This opium is refined to make morphine, then further refined into different forms of heroin. …

In its purest form, heroin is a fine white powder. But more often, it is found to be rose gray, brown or black in color. The coloring comes from additives which have been used to dilute it, which can include sugar, caffeine or other substances. Street heroin is sometimes ‘cut’ with strychnine or other poisons. The various additives do not fully dissolve, and when they are injected into the body, can clog the blood vessels that lead to the lungs, kidneys or brain. This itself can lead to infection or destruction of vital organs.”

Street names for the drug include “Big H,” “Brown Sugar,” “H,” “Hell Dust,” “Horse,” “Junk,” “Nose Drops,” “Skag,” “Smack” and “Thunder.”

Re-thinking the ‘War on Drugs’

A Feb. 20-21 symposium at Thorne Auditorium at Northwestern University School of Law, 376 E. Chicago Ave., Chicago, aims to re-think the “War on Drugs.” A press release for the symposium states:

Federal and state governments have recently been reexamining drug laws and policies, many of which are legacies of the War on Drugs. High-profile manifestations of these reexaminations include state initiatives to decriminalize marijuana, Attorney General Eric Holder’s August 2013 announcement of a change in federal prosecutorial policy on drug offenses, and legislation pending in Congress to address mandatory minimum sentences.

The two-day symposium will address federal and state criminal laws for possession, use and sale of drugs; law enforcement, prosecutorial discretion and sentencing for same; addiction programs; prison populations; social fabric of communities in which drug use is high; drug economics; and foreign policy directed at drug source.”

Learn more about the symposium at www.7thcircuitbar.org.

Indeed, harsher sentencing is needed to keep dangerous criminals — including those who deal hard drugs (heroin, crack/cocaine, etc.) — off the streets. Considering drugs such as heroin take lives (and ruin the lives of the loved ones left behind), maybe it’s time to consider the death penalty or a life sentence for those who are convicted of dealing drugs leading to a death.

For those who have suffered the tragic loss of losing a loved one to addiction, there is little difference between a murderer with a gun and a murderer with a bag of heroin. Murderers need to be held accountable for their actions, regardless of the weapon used in the crime.

Additionally, increased mandatory minimum sentences for dealers convicted of selling or trafficking hard drugs could take more dealers off the streets and prevent others from considering selling drugs.

Beyond the streets, pain management and mental health doctors — and others who prescribe opiates, amphetamines and other narcotics — also need to be held accountable for administering and prescribing these drugs. More oversight and regulation is needed.

Clearly, the DEA also needs to step up its enforcement of trafficking from Mexico and South America.

The spread of the drug trade in the Rockford area means the public needs to be more vigilant in reporting suspected crime. Anyone with information about suspected drug activity within the City of Rockford is urged to contact the Rockford Police Department at (815) 987-5034. Outside the city in Winnebago County, contact the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department at (815) 282-2600.

Where to go for help

For those seeking treatment for a loved one struggling with addiction, contact one of the following local agencies (Note: addicts are unlikely to seek assistance for themselves, so you must do it for them, and many of these programs have waiting lists):

• Rock River Narcotics Anonymous — 24-hour helpline: (815) 964-5959; or call toll-free, 1-888-656-7329

• Rosecrance — (815) 391-1000

• Remedies Renewing Lives — (815) 962-0871

• Sojourn House (Freeport, Ill.) — (815) 232-5121

• Mathers Clinic LLC — (815) 397-7654; Intake: (815) 444-9999

• Al Tech Services — (815) 397-3606

• Jack Clark’s Family Recovering Community Inc. — (773) 252-2877

• Foundations Center — (815) 398-9999; Intake: (815) 637-0509

• Restore Counseling and Recovery, Inc. — (815) 708-7392; Intake: (815) 708-8235

• KP Counseling Inc. — (779) 368-0060

• Quality Addiction Management (Beloit, Wis.) — (608) 361-7200; Intake: (262) 549-6600

• Mercy Options Behavioral Health Clinic (Beloit, Wis.) — (608) 365-2709; Intake: (608) 756-5555 or (608) 756-6545

• Beloit Health Systems Counseling Care — (608) 364-5686

Some of the above organizations could also use donations so they are able to reach more of those in need.

Learn more about addiction and where to turn for help at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, www.samhsa.gov, or call toll-free at 877-726-4727.

From the Feb. 12-18, 2014, issue

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