Philip Seymour Hoffman, described in The New York Times as “perhaps the most ambitious and widely admired American actor of his generation,” died in a Greenwich Village apartment on Feb. 2 with a needle in his arm and a heroin baggie nearby.
Hoffman, who died at 46, won the Oscar for best actor for the title role in “Capote” in 2005.
His heroin addiction began in college, but he had more than 20 years of sobriety before he relapsed last year.
By his own admission, he had injected heroin many times. The police found 70 baggies in his apartment, many labeled “Ace of Spades.” This brand of heroin was last seen on the streets of Brooklyn in 2008, according to The New York Post.
People will ask what went wrong. Was Hoffman poisoned? Was he sold tainted drugs? Was he given a “hot shot” – a dose containing heroin at a higher than normal concentration?
Toxicology tests on his body will determine if the heroin he injected was poisoned or tainted by another drug or toxic substance. The intentional poisoning of recreational drugs is so rare I’ve never seen it, but medical examiners always check.
In January, a batch of heroin mixed with the synthetic narcotic fentanyl killed at least 17 people in and around Allegheny County, Pa. Bags containing the lethal concoction were stamped in red ink with the word “Theraflu.” Probably some of the people who died didn’t know they were injecting something different. Likely those who did expected a superior high.
It’s possible something was identifiably different about the last dose of heroin Hoffman injected, but I doubt it.
Every medical examiner sees the same scenario over and over, regardless of which drug an addict chooses: The same drug or combination of drugs a person took repeatedly in the past inexplicably kills this time.
Most of the time, the level of drug measured in the body is no higher than levels reported in people who survive. There’s no reason to think the level measured was higher than the dead person had survived before. The relationship between the amount of drug taken and the likelihood of death isn’t very good.
Addicts frequently swallow or inject enough to pass out. Usually, they survive. But my experience tells me any time you take enough of a depressant drug to make you pass out, you run the small risk of a catastrophic brain malfunction.
The brain is like a computer. When you hit the power button instead of going through the shut-down sequence, you run the small risk of a catastrophic computer malfunction.
Drug abusers risk death whenever they use. Death is random, and death is rare – but the risk is real. I suspect Hoffman’s luck just ran out.
A Time obituary told the truth, albeit bluntly: “(Hoffman) didn’t die because he was partying too hard or because he was depressed – he died because he was an addict on a day of the week with a y in it.”
firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003-12. She now lives in Florida and Maryland.