September 5, 1996 * Vol . 7, No. 1

Heroin's evil reputation a myth, says SFU study

by Jo Moss

Deaths attributed to heroin overdoses in B.C. have skyrocketed over the last decade, but there's more to that story than meets the eye. An SFU study suggests heroin is not to blame for the majority of those deaths. In fact, the research points to the drug's evil reputation as myth.

In 1984, 13 deaths in B.C. were attributed to heroin; in 1993 there were more than 300. Michael Brandt, a criminology graduate student at Simon Fraser University, uncovered a different twist to that story while doing research for his master's thesis. His examination of the records found that in 70 per cent of cases, heroin wasn't present in large enough amounts to have been the sole cause of death.

"If you look closely at the reports, you see people died from a com-bination of factors. Heroin was just one of those factors," he says. "Heroin played a role in their deaths, but it wasn't the only thing going on in those people's lives."

Death caused by heroin overdose is easy to detect, he says, because it causes acute pulmonary failure. The real culprit in these deaths was a combination of things like alcohol and tobacco abuse, a host of viruses, and the use of a variety of prescription and non-prescription drugs in a deadly cocktail. "Heroin was singled out in the autopsy reports because of the mythology surrounding the drug," Brandt explains. "We have this stereotype of heroin as inherently dangerous. In fact, death occurred because of a variety of factors."

Brandt examined 1,029 coroner's reports: 654 attributed death to heroin overdose and 375 attributed death to alcohol. Together they accounted for more than 95 per cent of all coroner's reports between 1984 and 1993. In examining the heroin records, Brandt found users suffered from a range of medical and social ills, none of which were a direct result of heroin use. "Heroin has a reputation as a killer drug which causes a range of problems, but those problems are caused by everything but heroin," he says.

Diseases such as hepatitis from sharing needles were a significant contributing factor to death, as was other legal drug-taking behavior - use of alcohol, tobacco and pre-scription drugs. "Heroin is just part of that whole picture," Brandt explains. In 30 per cent of the cases, he found high drug purity did cause death. "That's because the drug is illegal and users have no way of knowing the purity of the heroin they're taking," he says.

The results fly in the face of public opinion and the mythology which surrounds heroin, but
Brandt insists he's not saying anything new. "The evidence has been there all along, we've just chosen to ignore it." He's quick to point out, he's never tried the drug himself and he's certainly not an advocate of its use.

Brandt says using heroin can be compared to using alcohol. Neither drug necessarily causes problems, unless it is used in an abusive way. "We focus on the drug as the problem, when it's the behavior around it that's at fault."

He says there's plenty of evidence which shows that heroin in itself is not addictive. Like alcohol, it depends on the circumstances in which it is used. "There are lots of people using heroin who don't fit the stereotype of the junkie," he argues. "Heroin can be a safe drug. If you don't know the dose, it can kill you. But, like alcohol, if you use it wisely, it can be part of a healthy, productive life."

He recalls how, as an auxiliary constable in the RCMP, he took part in commando-style raids on Wreck Beach, arresting people selling pot. While an undercover policeman set up the sting, the hit squad would descend stealthily through the trees to catch the criminals red-handed.

"After our shift was over, we'd all sit around and crack a beer," Brandt says. "If you think about it, it's ludicrous - and totally illogical. They're both drugs. The only difference is, we've decided one is legal and the other illegal."

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