Yesterday, Phillip Seymour Hoffman — like sadly many other talented actors — died of an accidental drug overdose after years of struggles and relapses. His death has universally been mourned, including by yours truly. But like most high-profile deaths related to drugs, it exposes an even bigger tragedy: the unusual and ultimately counter-productive way in which society treats the subject of drug use. As Simon Jenkins of The Guardian succinctly observes:
Does the law also mourn? It lumps Hoffman together with thousands found dead and friendless in urban backstreets, also with needles in their arms. It treats them all as outlaws. Such is the double standard that now governs the regulation of addictive substances that we have had to develop separate universes of condemnation.
We cannot jail or otherwise hurl beyond the pale all who use drugs. We therefore treat some as “responsible users” and when something goes wrong mourn the tragedy. Offices, schools, hospitals, prisons, even parliament, are awash in illegal drug use. Their illegality is no deterrent. The courts could not handle proper enforcement, the prisons could not house the “criminals”. In Hoffman’s case his friends clearly knew that he was a drug addict. The police would have done nothing had they known.
So what do we do? We turn a blind eye to an unworkable law and assume it does not apply to people like us. We then relieve the implied guilt by taking draconian vengeance on those who supply drugs to those who need them, but who lack the friends and resources either to combat them or to avoid the law. Hospitals and police stations are littered each night with the wretched results.
There are no winners in the illegality of drugs, except the lucky ones who make money from it without getting caught. The only hope is that high-profile casualties such as Hoffman’s might lead a few legislators to see the damage done by these laws and correct their ways. At least in some American states the door of legalisation is now ajar. Not so in Britain, where the most raging addiction is inertia.
What do you think? Are drug-related deaths like Hoffman’s (among so many less visible ones) at least partly the result of a legal culture that criminalizes drugs, and by extension its victims? Would legalizing or decriminalizing once-illicit substances help turn drug abuse into a public health problem to be addressed, rather than a crime to be unequally and ineffectively enforced? Evidence from some U.S. states, as well countries around the world, suggests these steps would help to some extent. But what do you think?