Philip Hensher: The postcode lottery of drug-related deaths

Probably on the same day another woman was killed in the same way as Eva Rausing, leaving behind an addicted partner

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Is there anything to be learnt from the shocking end of Eva Rausing? The reports of her last days are genuinely tragic. She had struggled for years to overcome her addiction to drugs. A prosecution when police found her in possession of heroin and crack cocaine in 2007 led her to try to reform her life. Her willpower was not strong enough, and her husband, too, was an addict. By the end, according to some reports, they were living in two rooms of their house, described as squalid and uncared-for. He may have spent days with her dead body, taking more and more drugs. After he was apprehended, he could not be questioned for days, so incoherent was he.

A dreadful end. But not an unusual one. Drug use in the UK has been falling for some years from a peak in the mid-Nineties. In 1995, 5.6 million adults took illegal drugs, a figure which fell to 4.4 million by 1996. Despite this, drug deaths have actually been rising for some time – by 19 per cent in the decade to 2009. It is thought that use of the drugs most likely to lead to death, heroin and cocaine, is most widespread among a middle-aged constituency – younger, more resilient users seem to prefer ad hoc drugs which become quickly popular and as quickly disappear, like mephedrone, as well as cannabis. Long-term users may have got to the age where their habits will kill their weakened systems, so usage can go down while deaths can continue to rise.

Britain has the highest number of drug deaths in Europe. Between 1995 and 2008, according to figures collected by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, there were between 6,300 and 8,400 deaths in Europe, including Norway. In 2008, more than half the recorded deaths were accounted for by Germany and the UK, with the UK taking the larger share. In the most recent year for which figures are available, something like five lives a day are lost in the UK to drug use or its complications. Probably, on the same day that Eva Rausing died, another woman died of the same causes, probably leaving another addicted partner in a state of total intoxication. At these levels of usage, addicts find and keep each other.

A family in my London street lost a boy to heroin a couple of years back. He was a working-class boy, so nobody took much interest apart from his family and friends. Eva Rausing, too, lived a largely private life; she didn't seek the limelight, it seems, and she tried to deal with her problems and make a worthwhile existence without much public exposure.

But we are talking about her, and not about one of the many other drug deaths, let alone the tens of thousands of addicts who are getting by, for one reason alone – her money.

History shows that there is nothing the media likes more than an immensely rich addict dying from their habit. This has been the case since Talitha Getty in 1971 at the very least. The Guinness cousin Olivia Channon's death in Oxford in 1986 was a media sensation. The man in whose room she died, Gottfried von Bismarck, died himself of the same causes in 2007 – he had been injecting himself with cocaine hourly before his death, and the coroner had never seen such high levels. In the absence of an heiress, a media favourite will do to create a story: Sebastian Horsley in 2010, Michael VerMeulen in 1995.

In each of these cases, it is almost as if there is a public interest defence which lets us intrude into their lives. The larger situation is certainly a public one; the individual case is in every case a private tragedy. There is no interest in the fact that Mr and Mrs Rausing worked as hard as they could in the circumstances on behalf of drug rehabilitation charities, donating substantial sums of money while themselves continuing to use. That may be hypocrisy on one level, but the Rausings went on seeking to do some good to others, even if they could not help themselves. The habit killed Mrs Rausing, but before she died she gave a lot of money and time to public causes. Could all super-rich gamblers at the casino table, for instance, say the same?

In the end, addicts die in much the same way. Most addicts do not keep £2,000 in drugs sitting in the house, as the Rausings were once discovered to be doing. There is also the point that users with the Rausings' means are immense targets for dealers. But any user could, if it came to it, amass the sort of quantities that will kill him. There is not a lot of difference between Eva Rausing's death and the death of any number of nameless users. The difference is in the postcode.

At a time when everyone understands that prohibition is not working, and politicians have reached a total impasse in what they are prepared to do, the sad pointlessness of Eva Rausing's death is impossible to use as any sort of lesson. A moment of private grief for others, and then we have to move on. The only thing to hope is that it acts, somewhere, as some kind of warning, to someone we'll never hear of.

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