The term “addict” tends to elicit a derisive response. One thinks of some weak, useless junkie, the unnamed character at the beginning of a “Law & Order” episode who is presented not as a person in his or her own right, but as a problem, a drain on and danger to society. For those of us who do not suffer from addiction, it’s tempting to view ourselves as morally superior in some way, possessed of the self-control and good sense not to become attached to illegal hard drugs, or for that matter, legal tobacco.
That’s why the death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, perhaps the greatest acting talent of our time, is so powerful. Most of us have seen Hoffman in the movies, awed by his ability to become the character he was playing. How could someone so gifted, so successful, turn to heroin? Surely he knew how dangerous the drug was. Why didn’t he stop?
He didn’t stop because he was an addict. There’s nothing rational to it -- at least, there’s nothing rational to the thought that someone addicted to a powerful drug would look at the syringe and say, "hmm, this probably isn’t a wise thing to do. I think I’ll pass." And that flawed attitude prevails when the addict in question is not some nameless, homeless and unaccomplished junkie in a TV show. When it’s Hoffman (or for that matter, someone you know and respect who won’t stop smoking), it’s harder to demonize the person himself or herself.
We can continue to criminalize drug-peddling and even drug possession. We can even make it more onerous to use legal destructive substances, which I believe indeed reduces use. I have had a number of ex-smokers tell me that the thing that finally led them to make the very difficult effort to quit was the fact that they could not smoke in bars or restaurants anymore, and had to go stand outside in the cold at work to grab a cigarette. When I was a kid, my mother used to send me to the drugstore with a signed note asking for a pack of Galaxys and a Hershey bar. I was always sold the product. (Notably, the two items together were about a buck, and the fact that a pack of cigarettes in New York now costs more than $14 because of the high tax on tobacco has probably deterred smoking as well). CVS’s decision to stop selling tobacco at its stores as of October 1 is also notable – sure, smokers should be able to use a legal substance, as long as they don’t endanger others with second-hand smoke. But no one says society or governments or the business community has to make it easier to do so.
What we need to stop doing is criminalizing addiction. Laws to combat drug trafficking are useful. Making it harder to obtain addictive substances is useful. Putting addicts in jail does nothing except add to the incarceration budgets of states and the feds.
The arts world has suffered a great loss with the death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Let’s hope we can at least learn something from it.