The heroin-overdose death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has caused the media to focus, however fleetingly, on America’s drug problem.
News accounts of the Oscar-winner’s tragic demise typically reference the startling increase in heroin-related deaths in the last four to five years. The problem, reporters explain, is the vast number of Americans addicted to prescription pain meds like OxyContin, many of whom discover heroin to be both cheaper and easier to obtain than the prescription opioid drugs to which they initially became addicted.
That’s accurate as far as it goes. But by following the trail further, we arrive at a place far more shocking and consequential. We discover that not only has the traditional distinction between illegal “street drugs” and legal “therapeutic prescription drugs” become so blurred as to be almost nonexistent, but between America’s twin drug epidemics – one illegal, the other legal – well over 70 million Americans are using mind-altering drugs. And that number doesn’t include abusers of alcohol, which adds an additional 60 million Americans. So we’re really talking about 130 million strung-out Americans. How is this possible?
Of course, most of the drug news we’ve heard lately has been about pot. It started with medical marijuana, with state after state successfully defying the federal ban. Then on Jan. 1, flat-out legalization took center stage, when Colorado and Washington opened their doors to exhilarated pot-smokers, while numerous other states – from Alaska, Oregon and California in the west to Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C., in the east – announced plans to push for legalization in the coming months.
As a result, stock prices for cannabis companies soared (“The demand for marijuana is insatiable,” says one entrepreneur, “you have a feeding frenzy for the birth of a new industry”), the New York City-based publication “High Times” announced a new private-equity fund to “raise $100 million over the next two years to invest in cannabis-related businesses,” and ad agencies geared up to support “an industry estimated to already be generating revenues in the billions of dollars.”
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