CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- This newspaper advocates legalization of mild marijuana, which is considerably less harmful than beer, whisky, cigarettes, pain pills and other legal products. But "hard drugs" like heroin are a much worse danger.
We know a young Kanawha County woman who was a straight-A student in high school, but she became a pill addict, then a heroin user -- and her life slid into the gutter, damaging her future and her family. Repeated arrests mar her record. We don't know if she can fully recover, because heroin permanently alters the brain.
Currently, America is focused on the senseless death of brilliant actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was found with a needle in his arm, surrounded by empty heroin bags. Analysts warn that a new heroin epidemic is harming America. Overdose deaths doubled from 1999 to 2010, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says.
Vermont's governor recently devoted his entire State of the State address to what he called "a full-blown heroin crisis" menacing the Green Mountain State.
Multitudes of southern West Virginians are dubbed "pillbillies" because of their pain pill addiction. But an OxyContin pill sells as high as $40 in the criminal black market, so many "pillheads" turn to cheaper heroin, which is peddled for as little as $6 per bag in large cities.
The opiate comes partly from Afghan poppy fields -- the wild mountain zone where America is bogged down in its longest war. Lately, criminal U.S. dealers intensify heroin by adding fentanyl, which produces stronger "highs" but is more deadly. Furtive users and even street peddlers don't really know what's in the bags sold in the shadows. Some heroin is cut with baking soda or infant laxatives. Some bags are labeled "Kill Zone" or "D.O.A." or "Grim Reaper."
The latest Atlantic magazine paints a sad picture of desperate addicts shooting up in alleys, abandoned buildings, vacant lots, parked cars. "The risk for assault, particularly sexual assault for women, in off-the-grid, hidden, get-high places is incredible," the report says. "Overdosed bodies are routinely pulled from such spaces in North Philadelphia."
To cope with the worsening menace, Vancouver opened Insite, a medically supervised clinic where addicts receive doses under safe conditions -- with nurses ready to administer lifesaving Naloxone to reverse overdoses if they happen. But this safeguard would be illegal in America, where hard dope is outlawed completely.
The heroin nightmare is tragic. We don't know whether any cure is possible -- but leaders in West Virginia and elsewhere should try every solution that shows promise.