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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Star's death highlights our double standards

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New Yorkers are mourning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman following his death from a heroin overdose this week. Photo / AP
New Yorkers are mourning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman following his death from a heroin overdose this week. Photo / AP

The online encyclopaedia Wikipedia has its critics, but its army of anonymous, unpaid volunteers can't be accused of letting the grass grow under their feet.

Wikipedia's vast archive of information (and occasional misinformation) includes a list of notable people who have died from drug-related causes.

There was a new entry this week: Philip Seymour Hoffman 1967-2014, actor, heroin overdose.

Wikipedia got there well before the New York City Chief Medical Examiner, whose office put out a statement late in the week saying pathologists "had not yet reached a conclusion on the cause and manner" of Hoffman's death.

Presumably the fact that he was found with a syringe in his arm surrounded by bags of heroin was persuasive enough for whoever updates Wikipedia's dead-drug-fiends-who-happen-to-be-famous list.

Whenever celebrities die prematurely and of unnatural causes, we enter a grey area where bitter ironies abound.

In this instance, the postmortem narrative is that of the haunted artist whose talent and suffering were inseparably linked: his gift was at least partly born of sensitivity and introspection, while the depth and intensity he brought to his art exacted a psychic toll.

After a 20-year resistance, he once again turned to narcotics to keep his demons at bay.

While this borders on cliche, there seems little reason to quibble with its general thrust. Furthermore, an element of cliche doesn't diminish the tragedy of one of the greatest character actors of his generation dying in such circumstances.

Still, I can't help wondering what the reaction would have been had Hoffman been discovered comatose but still breathing and survived courtesy of swift medical intervention.

Given the 50 bags of heroin in his apartment, would he now be facing the prospect of jail time?

And if not, why not? If a young black man from a housing project was caught with 50 bags of heroin, arrest, trial and imprisonment would follow as night follows day.

Why should it be any different because the heroin was discovered when medics entered the famous middle-aged white man's Greenwich Village apartment to save his life?

Sometimes there's a fine line between tragedy and disgrace.

Then there's the galvanic effect Hoffman's death had on the authorities. As New York magazine put it: "The actor's apparent overdose set off a special manhunt for the source of the narcotics due to his celebrity status." It's not often one can say of a sentence both that I couldn't have and could have put it better myself. Semantics aside, in light of the recent "epidemic" of heroin overdose deaths in New York, the unmistakable implication is that if you sell heroin to nonentities only, the NYPD will look the other way.

No doubt some will argue that these overdoses demonstrate the need to crank up the War on Drugs.

A staple of that war's propaganda is that low-level exposure to drugs - puffing on a joint passed around at a party, for instance - is the first step on the slippery slope to physical, financial and moral ruin, if not a sordid early death.

Heroin use in the USA rose 45 per cent between 2006 and 2010. So what do those on the front line regard as the primary cause of this resurgence? They point the finger at the abuse of legal prescription opiate-based painkillers such as oxycodone.

Drug Enforcement Agency officials interviewed by Reuters said: "Many individuals who start out abusing oxycodone turn eventually to heroin as they build up a tolerance to pain pills and find they can buy heroin far more cheaply than prescription medicine on black markets."

Los Angeles DEA agent Sarah Pullen said: "Prescription drug abuse took hold about 10 years ago, and about five years ago we really started to see heroin abuse pick up."

These days, it seems, the first step on that slippery slope to poverty, degradation etc is going to your GP to get relief from backache or RSI.

To put it another way, the gateway to heroin addiction is a range of drugs that society has given the thumbs up.

The Wikipedia list includes alcohol-related deaths. We don't have to track down very far before we get to Asa A. Allen 1911-1970, evangelist, liver failure due to acute alcoholism.

And there simply aren't enough anonymous, unpaid volunteers to include tobacco-related deaths.

This week World Health Organisation scientists predicted a global "tidal wave" of cancer over the next 20 years. In their view a useful first step towards stemming the tide would be to apply the measures governing the availability, promotion and pricing of tobacco to alcohol.

Their timing could hardly have been worse - a celebrity had just died of a heroin overdose.

- NZ Herald

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