Letter: 1995 Drug Deaths

Letters to the Editor
The Oregonian
1320 SW Broadway
Portland, OR 97201

Jan. 28, 1995

To the Editor,

The latest body count from our war on some drugs ("Oregon sets high in '95 for drug-related deaths," Jan. 26, p. C1 & C5) ignores several factors which all Oregonians should be aware of.

In the first place, the heart-wrenching story about the newborn infant, Sarah Wilson, which frames the story, is misleading. While the article at first attributes Sarah Wilson's death to methamphetamines, the description of what transpired contradicts that interpretation. The end of the article reports that "In fact, she had an 80 percent chance at life and beating the methamphetamines she received through her mother's blood if she had received proper care at birth." That Sarah Wilson's parents welcomed her into the world by negligently leaving the newborn infant "on a bed for six hours while they slept" was obviously the most likely cause of death, not methamphetamines. Criminal negligence and not illegal drugs is also the explicit reason "Her mother, Tracey Buck, 24, and her live-in boyfriend, Richardson Wilson, 52, who claimed to be the father, are serving two-year prison sentences for criminally negligent homicide."

The Oregonian might also have noted that Sarah Wilsons' parents probably would have been sentenced to considerably longer terms if they had been convicted of drug violations instead of homicide, since there is no room for killers and other real criminals because jails and prison are filled with harmless drug offenders.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics Sourcebook 1992, p. 49, the average sentence is 3.5 years for manslaughter, but 6.5 years for illegal drugs:

Average Lengths of Federal Sentences:

Offense                    Sentence

Assault                    3.2 years
Manslaughter               3.5 years
Racketeering               5.0 years
Extortion                  5.0 years
Sex Offenses               5.8 years
Drug Offenses              6.5 years
One wonders too why the parents did not call an ambulance. If it was because they feared punishment for using methamphetamine, then the most reasonable interpretation of Sarah Wilson's death might be that prohibition caused it. As stated in an article titled "Collateral Casualties" Climb in Drug War, which appeared in the June 1, 1994 Journal of the American Medical Association, "Media-generated hysteria over 'crack babies' has led to the imprisonment of women who use cocaine during pregnancy. Many health care workers believe that the fear of prosecution and imprisonment discourages many of the women who most need prenatal care from seeking it (JAMA. 1990;261:30t 310). Ironically, properly controlled scientific studies suggest maternal cocaine use may pose less danger to a fetus than maternal cigarette smoking (JAMA, 1994;271:576577)."

Since The Oregonian was among those media who made a lot of money off other people's misery by whipping up public hysteria over crack babies, it would behoove the newspaper this time around to discuss the real relative dangers of methamphetamine, and why it makes sense to banish mothers who unwisely use it from the health-care system through a system of amphetamine prohibition, while not following the same policy toward expectant mothers who unwisely continue smoking cigarettes.

What is not clear from The Oregonian article is that the total number of "drug-related" deaths in Oregon in 1994 was less than 1 percent of the number of Oregonians who died from such legal recreational drugs as tobacco, alcohol and caffeine, and from such legal prescription drugs as Theophylline, an asthma medication, and over-the-counter drugs such as aspirin. (The annual toll from aspirin in America rivals or surpasses that for cocaine.) It is imperative for the sake of an accurate perspective that any discussion of drug policy and its consequences consider the toll from all recreational and pharmaceutical drugs in the same picture. (It should also have been mentioned that the one illegal drug which Oregon taxpayers spent more to combat than any other, marijuana, caused no deaths at all, and the same was true in the case of LSD and other "psychedelics." *)

As mentioned before, one significant inaccuracy involves the report that the record 183 Oregon deaths in 1995 included those fatalities which "stemmed from behavior that resulted from taking drugs," including the case of Sarah Wilson. On the one hand, it was not clear from the report if the 1994 toll included suicides involving drugs, for example, when a suicide note was left. On the other hand, including such situational deaths is not generally considered accurate accounting with regard to legal drugs, or even illegal drugs such as marijuana and LSD*. For example, such behavioral deaths involving alcohol (auto and other accidents, violence and suicides) are generally not included in alcohol's annual toll, which usually runs about 100,000 in the United States (or 150,000 including accidents). Nor are the numbers of situational tobacco-related deaths from house fires, secondhand smoke and premature or stillborn infant births generally included in tobacco's annual toll of 400,000 American deaths. Indeed, Oregon's 1994 body count of 183 deaths from illegal drugs obviously excludes those people killed by AIDS contracted through intravenous drug use, all of whom should logically be included in the behavioral casualty count. So The Oregonian's reporting seems to conceal inconsistent standards.

Considering that deaths attributed to heroin outnumbered deaths attributed to meth and cocaine by 134 to 49 and 32, respectively, it is most disturbing that The Oregonian continues to fail to tell the public the truth about "The 'heroin overdose' mystery and other hazards of addiction," as described in Chapter 12 of "The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs," by Edward M. Brecher and the editors of Consumer Reports (Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1972, ISBN 0-316-10717-4, available for $14.95 plus $1.75 postage from New Morning Books in Mt. Morris, IL, 1-800-851-7039, stock item # HB/44).

Let me string together a few quotes from the only major study of drugs and drug policy commissioned by the American media:

"...the thousands of deaths attributed to heroin overdose are not in fact due to heroin overdose at all. The evidence falls into three major rubrics: (1) The deaths cannot be due to overdose. (2) There has never been any evidence that they are due to overdose. (3) There has long been a plethora of evidence demonstrating that they are not due to overdose."
To summarize this chapter: It is almost impossible for addicts to overdose on pharmaceutical heroin because of their tolerance to opiates, and the overdose level even for those without tolerance is 120 milligrams to 350 milligrams (some nonaddicts have survived much greater doses). The average street dose is 10 milligrams, so even 98 percent pure street heroin should not cause an overdose, especially in the case of an addict. Classic death from opiate overdose takes many hours, and can be quickly and easily prevented with a simple shot of an opiate-blocker. But in contrast to the lengthy period of time it takes pure heroin to shut down a patient's respiratory function and cause death, "overdoses" from illegal heroin and other drugs generally follow a pattern in which addicts are found to have died suddenly, often with needles still stuck in their arms, generally the victims of pulmonary edema, which has nothing to do with classic opiate overdose. As the Consumers Union Report notes, the two major suspected real causes of "overdose" deaths are 1) ingesting heroin with alcohol; and, to a much greater extent, 2) cutting agents and impurities found in street drugs, which are lethal to varying degrees.

This is the import of deputy medical examiner Gene Gray's comment that "It's not the overdoses, it's the drugs that are the problem."

Pure, pharmaceutical heroin is not in fact a dangerous drug, as physicians in Liverpool and elsewhere who prescribe daily maintenance doses for addicts have testified. Virtually all accidental deaths attributed to heroin by the media are in fact due to prohibition, impure drugs, and the ignorance of users who must struggle with their problems without benefit of medical expertise - for example, advice not to consume alcohol in conjunction with opiates.

As for state medical examiner Larry Lewman's comment that "Meth. That's the epidemic.... it causes a toxic psychosis and (users) can be absolutely irrational for days," it should first be noted that according to the state's own data, heroin in fact causes more than twice as many deaths, 13 more in the past year (to 134) than the increase of four deaths from meth (to 49). Statistically, heroin deaths increased faster than meth deaths (11.07 percent versus 10.8 percent). The number of heroin deaths has in fact risen steadily, despite heroin's relative unpopularity, so one logical inference might be that meth is not as dangerous as street heroin.

Moreover, the use of alcohol can and does lead to delirium tremens and the same or worse behavior as that attributed to methamphetamine addicts, yet there is no outcry to re-institute alcohol Prohibition. As reported by Dr. Jeffrey A. Roth in a report titled, "Psychoactive Substances and Violence," published by the U.S. Department of Justice in February 1994, "Of all psychoactive substances, alcohol is the only one whose consumption has been shown to commonly increase aggression." And inasmuch as meth is a crude substitute for pure, pharmaceutical speed, which is much less toxic, The Oregonian's report again seems to go out of its way to make it harder to understand the truth, which is that it is much more realistic to attribute these deaths to prohibition than simply to "drugs" or drug addiction. If methamphetamine causes a toxic psychosis that "can" make users "absolutely irrational" for days, why do doctors so frequently prescribe methylphenidate (Ritalin) - a very similar chemical - to young schoolchildren for Attention Deficit Disorder?

Police are quick to defend their increasing budgets and central role in our drug policy by claiming that decreases in the death rate in 1987 and 1991 were attributable to "major drug busts." There have been many busts since then, however, and it is more likely that illegal drugs simply contained fewer adulterants in those years. Are police suggesting that heroin consumers simply stopped using opiates when the supply diminished? Is the Oregonian aware of the evidence that illegal-drug use does not commonly lead to either addiction or abuse? Other statistics from the period (for example, arrests) suggest no decline in usage rates. The government's own reports show that prices for illegal hard drugs declined throughout the period (following increased sanctions in 1984 and 1986 that paradoxically brought a flood of new traffickers into the market).

According to the U.S. Justice Department, our prison population has increased an average of 7.6 percent a year since 1980, while reported rates of illegal-drug use have remained the same since 1992. Is prohibition working? The logical inference that no one dares mention is that it may be making our problems much worse. Proven, effective alternative policies are available. If The Oregonian won't inform the voters about them, who will?

The issue of drug policy may not have been relevant to this report, but certainly this report is relevant to the issue of drug policy. "Oregon sets high in '95 for drug-related deaths" should provoke a re-examination of assumptions and a broad-based, open and frank discussion among all Oregonians about our failed policy of drug prohibition. Most voters unknowingly accept the premise that without our current policy of prohibition, many more people would use illegal drugs and would suffer the ruinous consequences. But if addicts could obtain these drugs from doctors or other disinterested, harm-reducing outlets, there is much evidence that "overdose" deaths would almost disappear, while usage would ultimately decline, as alcohol use ultimately declined after Prohibition ended in 1933. There is also much evidence that increased sanctions since 1984 are most responsible for the widespread perception that the harm associated with illegal drugs is increasing.

Would The Oregonian please make an effort to report on this information? The only alternative, it seems, is to wonder how much of an increase we will inevitably be reading about in January 1997.

Phil Smith
Northeast Portland



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