Dopes on Dope.

Media criticism.
Aug. 17 2005 6:20 PM

Dopes on Dope

A bad batch of reporting on NYC's heroin-related deaths.

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If the New York papers can be believed—and I'm not sure they can—we have reason to believe that Maria Pesantez and Mellie Carballo died not from heroin alone but from multiple drug use. The Aug. 16 Timesreports that the two men who were with the girls when they collapsed told detectives they had been "using drugs and drinking." The Postcites unnamed sources who say "the girls went to a Lower East Side bar shortly after breakfast to begin a drinking binge" and that "cocaine, alcohol and opiates" were found in Pasantez's urine. Newsdayreports allegations that the women had been drinking. "Sources" told the Daily News that the women had used cocaine and "had fresh needle marks on their arms." If this amalgam of assertions turns out to be true, then the easiest explanation for the tragic deaths would be the mixing of drugs, not the consumption of tainted or super-pure heroin.

The Sun entertained the contamination thesis, quoting Robert McCrie of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on the topic. McCrie told the paper that diluents like quinine, sugar, talcum powder, milk sugar, or a new cutting agent or combination of cutting agents might have helped kill the users. Even though contaminants don't figure highly in contemporary heroin-related death literature, McCrie gets a large brownie point for telling the Sun that alcohol or other sedatives might have played a role. (Permission granted to the Sunto share the brownie point.)

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Autopsy reports, which are due in a week to 10 days, should settle the debate. Still, how can the press (exclusive of the Sun), the police, and the medical authorities be so clueless about heroin-related death that none of them availed themselves of the facts of the case and the scientific evidence to hypothesize that a cocktail of drugs might have killed Pesantez and Carballo? Why isn't anybody alerting heroin users to the dangers of multiple drug use instead of warning about the chimeras of poison and super-dope?

Willful ignorance is probably the best explanation, especially for the press and the cops. But New York City's public health officers, who should know better, may refrain from warning users about multiple drug use because it comes a tad too close to advocating harm reduction. To their ears, saying, "If you insist on using heroin, use it as safely as you can," sounds too much like advocating a citywide BYO-smack party. Even if it saves a couple of lives.

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Stupid drug story of the day: Meth causes  users to disassemble bicycles. (Thanks to reader Eli Dickinson.) [Whoops! Not so stupid after all. See this update.] For the latest in the meth chronicles, see my new favorite blog, "Meth Mouth." Send your tips via e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.