Behind the News: Heroin, the celebrity drug

The image of the addict may be of a ravaged, destitute person on a street corner, but film stars, musicians and supermodels are no less immune

Peaches Geldof. Photograph: Ian West/PA Wire

Peaches Geldof. Photograph: Ian West/PA Wire


Last summer the Glee star Corey Monteith died of a heroin overdose. In February the renowned actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a heroin overdose. This week an inquest into the death of Peaches Geldof found that heroin was likely to have played a role.

None of these three celebrities looked like the stereotype of a heroin addict. Monteith and Geldof were young, apparently brimming with health, successful, famous and popular. Hoffman was overweight – far from the emaciated look that often accompanies heroin addiction. All appear to have been clean of heroin for differing periods of time before their deaths. But all three had made the fatal mistake of taking this destructive drug in the first place.

When Russell Brand, a recovering heroin addict who has been clean and sober for 10 years, said recently, “The last time I thought of taking heroin was yesterday,” it gave you some idea of the drug’s pernicious pull.

Alcohol is also a factor in some cases. Philip Seymour Hoffman had been sober for 23 years before having “just the one drink” at a wrap party for a film. But it wasn’t just the one drink that night. As he admitted before his death, drinking alcohol again “opened the floodgates” to other drugs, including heroin.

Brand isn’t an alcoholic: he’s a drug addict. But he can’t touch alcohol in case his defences go down.

The image of the “smack junkie” may be of a ravaged, destitute person on a street corner, but film stars, musicians and supermodels are no less immune (and sometimes even more susceptible) to the drug. Have-it-all stars such as River Phoenix and John Belushi died from heroin use; those who escaped just in time (by their own admission) include Angelina Jolie, Robert Downey jnr, Debbie Harry and Eric Clapton.

As a painkiller and appetite suppressant, heroin is efficient and immediately effective. No one likes being in pain, no one likes being overweight; a shortcut solution sounds attractive. But heroin provides more. Cocaine may give users an agreeable short-term buzz, but heroin provides euphoria while it’s in the body.

It also cuts users off from reality. That, despite the fact that in the very best-case scenario it ruins everything in your life, is its main appeal, both for the underclass user and the Hollywood multimillionaire.

There is another category of user that some say is growing: people suffering from pain. As pain-relief prescriptions become harder to secure, pain sufferers are finding that heroin dealers don’t ask questions and are on call 24/7. The drug can be obtained for less than the price of prescription medicine, as many dealers regard heroin as a loss leader and know buyers will be return customers.

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