In the days since the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, like many others I am reeling from the shock of losing an actor with profound mastery for his craft. He was compelling to watch -- an extraordinarily gifted person who was also a bit of an everyman that New Yorkers might occasionally spot sitting at a neighboring table in a café or restaurant. He defied Hollywood’s leading man formulas and the very mention of his name added a sense of intrigue to any project. He was also, as we are now all painfully aware, battling what appears to have been an addiction to opiates.
My job is to promote humane and compassionate alternatives to the war on drugs. An important part of what I do is encouraging the public to look at people who use drugs as fellow human beings. They may have deep flaws and shortcomings but they also deserve to be treated with dignity. Part of what compels us about talented actors is their ability to connect with our deepest emotions and command empathy from us. We experienced a bond through Hoffman’s performances. Many are grieving him as though he were someone we knew.
One of the brutal casualties of the drug war is a relentless emphasis on drugs. Drug warriors obsess over criminalizing chemicals and plants, the number of drug seizures they are able to claim responsibility for, and how supply numbers go up and down each year. Meanwhile, too often, the people who use drugs are invisible or worse they are stigmatized and demonized as “junkies,” “addicts,” and “criminals.” Drug users are “others” to be held in stark contrast to the rest of “us.”
My hope is that the sadness and shock over Hoffman’s death will give us pause in how we see drug users. Just as we lament the loss of his promising life, I would hope we extend that sentiment to the more than 36,000 other Americans who die of an accidental overdose each year. Among these people, are many sensitive and creative souls like Philip Seymour Hoffman. When the drugs they consume are illegal, they are forced to procure them through illicit means without any safety standards or monitoring. They are seen as criminals under the law and subject to severe penalties, including incarceration, and are particularly subject to these consequences if they happen to be poor or people of color.
Meanwhile, none of this is serving any of us. To the contrary, the tendency to demonize drug users forces them into the shadows, making them more vulnerable. As Dr. Carl Hart notes focusing only on drugs and measuring success only by whether or not someone stays “clean” ignores the broader more complicated context of addiction, mental health, trauma, and the real or perceived lack of choices that may underlie problematic drug use. We must be willing to see the whole person in order to help our loved ones survive and stay healthy. And however we may feel about drugs, we have to be realistic about the fact that some people find it impossible to stop taking drugs altogether, so we have to do the best to reduce the harms of their drug use and meet them where they’re at.
The public is mourning the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman but I can only imagine the pain and anguish that his close friends and family are enduring. Who knows what, if anything, could have been done to prevent his unfortunate fate. What we do know is that there are a host of health measures proven to save the lives of drug users, among which includes realistic drug education about how people can reduce the risk of their drug use, like avoiding alcohol and other dangerous drug combinations. Hopefully, our sadness will bring about thoughtful self-reflection about drug use, stigma, and doing the best we possibly can to reduce overdose fatalities.