The tragic death of the multi-talented American actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has given rise to another torrent of commentary about how and why such a gifted man could “succumb” to the temptations of hard drugs. Lugubrious commentary on the lifestyles of the rich and famous take us back to turf that is so familiar: drug addiction, we are told, is a moral failing, and the world of drugs is one inhabited by weak willed users and sleazy dealers.
The dealers are sleazy enough, but the users are not weak or moral cowards. Addiction is a disease, as real and physiological as cancer or a heart condition. Philip Seymour Hoffman was not a victim of his lifestyle. He contracted a disease as a young man, which is most dangerous as the brain is still not fully developed, and while the illness went into remission, he was never cured. When it came back it took him with a vengeance.
Medical practioners in the field tell us that while treatments for this terrible disease are improving, to talk of a “cure” is difficult. To fall back into addiction is not a “moral relapse”. It is simply a tragic sign that the illness has returned, and that the brain damage done in youth was simply too much.
The paradigm of the war on drugs has done untold damage. Trillions of dollars have been spent, and around the world addicts are thrown in jail for repeated use. Overdoses and suicides take tens of thousands away every year, and still we hear a call for hypocritical and failed policies that will throw people in jail but do practically nothing for treatment and rehabilitation.
There’s nothing romantic about drug addiction. But the moral scolding that is a substitute for thinking sensibly about drugs is doing costing lives and money, and it’s past time more joined the debate about what can and should be done. George Schultz and Henry Kissinger have joined many others in calling for an end to the wasteful policies that have completely failed. There should be Canadian voices not afraid to speak out and insist that addiction and mental health issues need to be treated, and not simply punished.