If it weren’t for Woody Allen, Dylan Farrow, and, possibly, Sochi, it would have seemed as if there was no news last week other than the overdose death of the beloved actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Predictably, there were endless news reports about the death itself: details of the actor’s last days and hours; revelations about the number of stamped packets of heroin, and the pursuit of those who sold Hoffman the drugs that killed him. Of course, there were also moving tributes to his astounding body of work. But whereas other recent drug-related deaths of celebrities — Heath Ledger’s, Cory Monteith’s — were widely covered, Hoffman’s inspired an almost overwhelming flood of commentary about addiction.
I contributed an editorial to Time.com about the addiction-treatment system (rooted in pseudoscience and tradition, not science) that failed Hoffman, and fails the more than one hundred addicts who die every day. Also on Time.com, health writer Maia Szalavitz wrote about measures that could have saved Hoffman’s life, and Reason editor Nick Gillespie argued, “There Is No Heroin Crisis.” (In the piece, his contention that hysteria around drugs can lead to calamitous policies is correct— he cites mandatory sentencing, which has been a travesty— but there is a heroin crisis.)
Time was only one source of opinion about the death. Among the New York Times’s coverage, physician Robert Hoffman wrote an op-ed that intelligently explained how heroin overdoses can be effectively prevented. On Slate, Seth Mnookin wrote about the chilling effect the actor’s death had on him personally. As a recovering addict, Mnookin was reminded of the “ever-present danger of relapsing.” Writing in the Guardian, another recovering addict, Russell Brand, charged that Hoffman “is another victim of extremely stupid drug laws.” It may sound ludicrous, but he was right, too, when he asked, “Would Hoffman have died if this disease were not so enmeshed in stigma? If we weren’t invited to believe that people who suffer from addiction deserve to suffer? Would he have OD’d if drugs were regulated, controlled and professionally administered? Most importantly, if we insisted as a society that what is required for people who suffer from this condition is an environment of support, tolerance and understanding?”
Every time I hear about an overdose death, it hits me hard. My son, a recovering addict—he’s five years sober — could easily have been one of those whose lives were cut short because of drugs. There’s no spinning a death like Hoffman’s to make it anything other than tragic. But in his death, there was, I thought, hope for other addicts.
Another contributor to Time, a colleague of Hoffman’s, the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, wrote that the actor once told him that if he ever overdosed, it would save other addicts. Sorkin explained that Hoffman meant that the death “would make news and maybe scare someone clean.” I agree, but I anticipated that it might save others’ lives for another reason. Addiction is the number-three killer in America and costs the nation billions of dollars a year in healthcare, criminal justice, lost productivity, and other costs — yet it’s rarely sanely addressed. Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy once told me that if you mention addiction on Capitol Hill, legislators’ eyes glaze over. There’s no effective addiction lobby, possibly because many addicts aren’t in any shape to advocate for themselves and their families often stay quiet because of the shame and blame associated with this disease. I thought, because of this tragedy, maybe we’ll now have a fruitful national discussion about addiction—that we’d acknowledge the ubiquity and talk about ways to end it.
Hoffman’s death has inspired a dialogue, but after last week’s cacophony, I’m not sanguine that it will improve the way we think about addicts and treat their affliction. Fox News published a piece that was so misguided and vindictive that it’s hard to believe that it was written by a doctor. The psychiatrist Keith Ablow, a member of Fox’s “Medical A-Team,” charged, “No quirk of neurochemistry can make you rate getting high as more important than getting your kids through life. Only a disorder of character can do that.” This belies the science that has demonstrated incontrovertibly that addiction isn’t a disorder of character, but a brain disease. So much of what I read last week — by editorialists as well as readers — was informed by similar prejudice, anger, callousness, and ignorance.
Stringing up dealers won’t solve the problem. Blaming addicts’ characters won’t solve the problem. Arresting users or even dealers won’t solve the problem, nor will minimizing the travesty. What will is an understanding that addiction is a disease and that addicts’ destructive and self-destructive behavior, as terrible as it can be, is a symptom. Just as we know that prevention, early diagnosis, and immediate and appropriate intervention stop people from dying of other diseases, those same tactics will save the lives of addicts. How many other deaths — of celebrities and, closer to home, of friends and family members — will it take before we understand that addicts are ill? People who are ill don’t need judgment, they need compassion. People who are ill don’t need censure, they need treatment.
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