The needle and the damage done


I was jarred by the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman of an apparent heroin overdose. The man was an artist. And he was 46.

All of us are seeing life, right now, in light of the deaths of Toledo firefighters Stephen Machcinski and James Dickman. But 46 is young.

I recently saw a great film called All is Lost, with Robert Redford. Mr. Redford is now 77. When he was about Philip Seymour Hoffman's age, he won the Academy Award for best direction of a motion picture.

Mr. Hoffman was already an Oscar winner for acting. But imagine if he'd had another 30 years. Think of the human creativity that has been lost, over the years, to the needle, and to addictions of all kinds. Dylan Thomas was 39 when he drank himself to death in New York City.

And not just Mr. Thomas or Jimi Hendrix. Consider all the lost undiscovered artists. Or the families destroyed by the early deaths of so many loved ones. I'm thinking of the mother of one of my youngest son's friends — a smart, kind, and well educated woman who worked at a newspaper. She was destroyed by a heroin addiction. Her son has never recovered.

The attorney general of the state of Ohio, Mike DeWine, has launched a broad-based initiative on the heroin epidemic. He has an enforcement task force. And he has an in-house expert who can help local communities build their own initiatives — like Solace, in Portsmouth, Ohio. It was founded by parents who have lost a child to heroin.

I spoke with Mr. DeWine on Monday. He said when he visits with Ohio sheriffs the first subject on their minds is heroin.

Toledo firefighters and police officers working the streets agree. They say the epidemic is here.

The situation is this: Many working and middle class people have become addicted to forms of medication that are essentially prescription and synthetic forms of heroin. When the scrips and the health insurance run out, the addict — the new middle American addict — has to satisfy his addiction with street heroin, which can be as cheap as $5 a pop.

Heroin is in the professional workplace and the PTA today. It has gone mainstream.

A few months ago, I sat in on a meeting between former Mayor Jack Ford and John Edwards, head of the Urban Minority Alcoholism and Drug Abuse and Outreach Program (UMADAOP) in Toledo. They were beginning to anticipate the contagion. Monday Mr. Edwards told me the sheer number of overdoses in Cleveland alarms him because trends in the larger cities tend to reach and replicate in the middle-size cities.

Mr. DeWine said some suburbs and small towns haven't gotten the wake-up call. They still think heroin is a strictly urban problem. But heroin deaths in Ohio have quadrupled in four years, rising to what may be as many as 2,000 in 2013.

Look, some addicts cannot be turned, cannot be dissuaded from a path of self-destruction. But some do want out of the nightmare.

I had a classmate when I was young, gifted like Mr. Hoffman, the most gifted person in our class. He got addicted to heroin in his late teens. He was a good guy, funny, an altar boy. He died in his 20s. And I think he wanted to be saved.

Thank God for AA, the best church in America. Addiction takes out a lot of sweet souls.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: or 419-724-6266.