When I first heard of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, I was angry — angry at him, angry that he could be so dumb, angry that he could take that sublime talent and shoot it into his brain never to be seen again.
But then I dismounted El Stallion, my high horse, and remembered the hundreds of men and women who crept like criminals through my office at the Salvation Army Family Services in Chicago every morning after being released from the overnight lock-up.
To a person they were crushed homeless drug addicts and alcoholics, sometimes both, and all mentally ill: The parade of the undead.
There was so little I could do for them. They wanted “car fare.” They wanted to pool their money from me for a fix, for a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20, anything to quiet the voice of craving ravaging their synapses.
Hoffman’s death to a likely overdose of heroin is a tragedy for him, his family and friends, and a loss for all who cherished his work.
And now, without skipping a beat, his life and death are being sensationalized on TV, radio, internet and the printed press. All the grisly details of finding his body, the spike in his arm, dying alone in the squalor of his bathroom, the packets of heroin found, and on and on.
On the front page below a distorted, haunting picture of the actor, The New York Times weighed in with the breathless headline, “Hoffman’s Heroin Points to Surge in Grim Trade”. It’s the usual breathless story about the increasing use of heroin, the rise in related crime and drug factories, and the growing number of heroin overdose deaths.
Of course, there were the usual statistics and the usual suspects — shifty men and women working their trade in dealing narcotics.
But worst of all was the framework within which his story was told: These drugs are illegal. Therefore, those taking them are criminals.
Which leads us to the distorted sphere of law enforcement standing in for a medical, psychological and social problem. We stand dumb before it as hundreds of thousands of cold dead fingers point at us with one voice chanting: J’Accuse! J’Accuse!
I’m saying nothing new by saying the entire war on drugs is a colossal failure, with an outrageous loss of resources and loss of life.
Around this deadly, stupid failure has grown a deadly, horrible “treatment industry” of dubious results. When the main premise of the War on Drugs is criminality, then the treatment is based on the false assumptions of criminality and prohibition.
If experts think cancer is caused by bad blood, leeches can’t be far behind.
Our prisons are filled with the mentally ill, minor drug offenders, and people with addictions. Our entire legal system has been perverted by this War on Drugs and it’s done irreparable harm by exporting its false assumptions into the healthcare industry.
Do we really want the police, prosecutors, jailers, judges and lawyers to be the front-line of treatment for those seeking medical care for addiction? Following that logic, do we want “addiction specialists” steeped in this model providing “care” for those seeking help?
In the New York Times reporting on Hoffman’s death was a quote from Andrew Kolodny, MD, an expert on drug abuse and founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP). The reporter turned to him for a quote and the ever ready Kolodny lamented that once the opiate genie is out of the bottle it’s hard to put back in.
This handy quote fits Kolodny’s narrative that the overprescribing of opioid medicines will lead to the usage of other dangerous drugs.
Dr. Kolodny is a relatively young man and perhaps he and others like him in the drug abuse industry have either not read or have forgotten their history. Forty five years ago there was a terrible outbreak of heroin abuse that coincided with the winding down of the Vietnam War. That outbreak had nothing to do with opioid medicines.
And herein lays the problem: The choice of drugs to abuse is caused by many factors; societal, psychological, warfare, economic decline, income inequality, supply and demand for drugs, and the presence of highly organized cartels with sophisticated marketing and delivery systems.
The problem for people with pain is that we have been singled out as the gateway through which opioids pass. Once opioids leave the medical sphere they become illegal drugs, making those who take them criminals.
Patients can become criminals when they become addicted. Instead of being able to truthfully tell their doctors about their substance problem, they have the very real fear of entanglement with the legal system and being labeled a criminal.
Even when following our doctor’s instructions faithfully, we are treated suspiciously — as if we are already criminals. This suspicion has made getting effective, timely treatment nearly impossible in some states. Why? The War on Drugs!
We need to decriminalize all drugs. Regulate and distribute them professionally with medical care. Tax these substances to help pay for the services. We will see, as some European countries have, that crime and overdoses go down and employment goes up.
Our current system is built on moralizing, destruction and incredible numbers of needless deaths.
Bluntly put, our drug treatment system needs dismantling, as it is quite simply a sham that enriches some while reigning horrible destruction around the many.
We need to turn to countries such as Portugal to see how to step away from our wrongheaded assumptions and poor service to a system that eschews criminality, courts and prisons for those in need of medical help.
The War on Drugs must end.
The War on Pain Patients must end.
Mark Maginn lives in Chicago where he is a poet, writer and social justice activist. Mark suffers from chronic pain and was a longtime volunteer with the American Pain Foundation. His blog “Left Eye Blind” can be found here.
The information in this column is not intended to be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Only your doctor can do that! It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s personal experiences and opinions alone. It does not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of National Pain Report or Microcast Media.