The suspected overdose death of Philip Seymour Hoffman is hitting millions of people, including myself, like a tsunami today. The story keeps unfolding and the tragedy just keeps compounding. Recent reports are suggesting that he was discovered with a needle in his arm and bags of a substance (presumed to be heroin) nearby. Like many of you, I was a huge fan of his, considered him to be the most gifted actor of his generation. And like many of you, I am horrified to think that he died from something so often easily prevented.
What makes the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman all the more tragic is that it happened in New York, a state with a wide array of policies and services designed to reduce drug overdose deaths and save the lives of people who use drugs. New York has a 911 Good Samaritan law, which offers some protection from drug charges for people who call 911 to report a suspected overdose. Many people panic at the scene of an overdose, fearing they or the overdose victim will be arrested for possessing small amounts of drugs. Good Samaritan laws in over a dozen states, including New York, encourage people to act quickly to save a life without fear of drug charges for minor violations. New Yorkers also have limited access to the opiate overdose reversal medicine naloxone. If administered right away, naloxone can can reverse an overdose and restore normal breathing.
Naloxone is generic, inexpensive, non-narcotic, works quickly and is not only safe, but also easy to use. It's been around since the 1970s and has saved tens of thousands of lives. New York also just this week introduced legislation to expand access to it.
So many states are just now starting to take some great steps to get naloxone in the hands of more people. Hoffman's death perfectly illustrates how terribly urgent this is. Even the Office of National Drug Control Policy is supporting naloxone in the hands of cops. But we can't stop there. It's not enough for law enforcement and EMT's to have access to naloxone -- people who use drugs and others who might witness an opiate overdose must have that same access. Whoever is the first to respond to the overdose, the actual "first responder," must be permitted access to naloxone, period. We need to make sure that local and federal governments are on board and that we're getting naloxone into as many pharmacies as possible.
Over the coming days, we'll likely learn a great deal more about Hoffman, his drug use and his personal demons. Some will likely call his death a "teachable moment." But we need to ensure that what we're teaching includes basic drug user safety information -- information that can absolutely save lives. We need to start talking about harm reduction and how to help people stay alive if they use drugs. If you use heroin and no one has ever told you to avoid mixing alcohol or other sedatives with heroin because it increases your risk of overdose, we have failed you. We don't have to like a persons drug use, in fact, we can hate it. But at the very least, we need to do some very basic, lifesaving education about it.
There is much left to discover about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. And much left to say about how we so very urgently need to significantly shift not only our conversations about drug use, but our drug policies, as well. We need doctors, not jail cells. We need compassion, and we need research-backed science and medicine to help people most in need of a therapeutic intervention. We need to acknowledge that we all have our secrets, our shame, our hidden darknesses and our realities that we keep safely out of public view. I hope as details emerge, we remember him as one of the greatest actors of the modern era and don't decide to write him off "just another celeb who died from drugs." I hope we do more to help others like him stay alive, even if they use drugs.
I tweeted this earlier today and I think this is how I will remember his death years from now:
I can't believe he's dead. He was a giant. A mountain of an actor. The very best. Horrible and unbelievably tragic. Go with God, Philip. You were loved.
Meghan Ralston is the harm reduction manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.
This piece originally appeared on The Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/meghan-ralston/the-tragedy-of-philip-seymour-hoffman_b_4714193.html