Issue February 4, 2014

Heroin madness

The heroin epidemic got a little more personal Sunday with the news that it had claimed the life of Philip Seymour Hoffman at 46. We had mutual friends in the acting community. Driving downtown amid a snowfall, I called one in Philadelphia and listened to her voice describe the collective gasp of a rehearsal cast as the news hit the set. That same voice had told me how embarrassed Phil was, almost eight years ago, when he won the Best Actor Oscar for his uncanny portrayal of Truman Capote — and forgot to thank his longtime partner, Mimi O’Donnell.

He did thank his mother, Marilyn O’Connor. “She brought up four kids alone, and she deserves congratulations for that,” he said. “She took me to my first play … Her passions became my passions.”

Phil is being memorialized as one of the greatest character actors of his generation. I admired his terrific talent and his unwavering honesty. In a 2011 interview with “60 Minutes,” he spoke candidly of wrestling with alcohol and drug addiction. “Anything I could get my hands on, I liked it all,” he said.

Asked why he decided to sober up, he replied, “You get panicked … I was 22 and I got panicked for my life; it really was, it was just that. And I always think, ‘God, I have so much empathy for these young actors that are 19 and all of a sudden are beautiful and famous and rich.’ I’m like, ‘Oh my god. I’d be dead!’”

For the next 23 years, Phil stayed clean while appearing in about 50 films. Life is what happens when a recovering addict is busy doing other things. But last year, he started abusing prescription pills and snorting heroin, he told TMZ. So he entered rehab. Shortly before noon Sunday, the father of three reportedly was found dead in his Manhattan bathroom with a hypodermic needle in his arm.

I’m still trying to wrap my mind around this Shakespearean tragedy.

This isn’t the first time the scourge has hit close to home. In late November, a Lexington friend called to tell me his childhood buddy Nick, 21, had died of a heroin overdose in northern Kentucky on Thanksgiving Day.

Three weeks ago, I heard the survivor-father of another northern Kentucky Nick, 30, testify before the state Senate Judiciary Committee on Senate Bill 5, a comprehensive measure to fight the epidemic. Eric Specht’s message was chillingly simple: Heroin is killing our kids — and we’re virtually helpless to save them.

“There is nothing like being a parent and having your child come to you and say, ‘I need help,’ and you can’t offer it to him because there’s just nowhere to send your kid for long-term treatment,” he said. “And long-term treatment is what’s needed … You might have a fighting chance after a year. You need to re-learn how to live life once you have detoxed and you’re clean. You don’t know how to deal with any kinds of issues. You’re used to turning to heroin to get away from your everyday problems.”

Nick’s parents sought treatment when they learned of his addiction about a year and a half ago. “We eventually got him a bed in Louisville, but he relapsed,” Specht told the panel as he welcomed a provision in the bill to increase the availability of Naloxone, an antidote. Paramedics administered it to Nick, but it was too late. “I found our son in our bathroom,” he said, choking back tears, “and if I had had Naloxone, he could very well be here today.”

But there are two controversial presumptions of Senate Bill 5, which cracks down on dealers and directs Medicaid to expand treatment options for others. One presumes that persons caught with more than 4 grams of heroin or meth are traffickers and would require them to serve at least half of their sentences before becoming eligible for probation, parole or early release.

Sen. Perry Clark, D-Louisville, a stalwart critic of the war on drugs as it’s been fought, asked the Republican sponsor of the bill, “Do you ever think outside this box of … incarcerating people, extending sentences and stuff? Those things do not work, have not worked — and we have to think differently.”

The most promising piece of the measure is a public-education component that’s been sorely lacking in America’s longest and costliest war. Stay tuned for updates. Meanwhile, the casualties keep coming.