Phillip Seymour Hoffman died in his Manhattan apartment Sunday. Just hours before the Super Bowl kickoff, Hoffman went into his bathroom and, according to reports, shoved a syringe in his arm. Hoffman, 46, had been battling substance abuse for years before overdosing on heroin.
While Hoffman’s death is sad, he is just the latest public figure who has become a casualty of the government’s “war on drugs.” Creating a stigma around substance abuse, society has made it easier to die in a bathroom alone than to seek help and treatment.
The Journal of the American Medical Association makes it clear that addiction is a disease. Like cancer and AIDS, there is treatment available but no cure. Unlike cancer, or other diseases, addiction is punishable with prison.
Despite having the financial resources to seek treatment, Hoffman, for whatever reason, declined to get help; and then it was too late when he had slid down the inevitable slope that makes seeking treatment no longer an option. If given the chance, humans, like monkeys, will seek the nebulous “high” from drug use in the latter stages of the disease.
Many drugs which are presently illegal — marijuana, opium, coca — have been around and used for thousands of years for medicinal purposes.
The idea that some drugs should be illegal while others remain lawful isn’t based on a scientific view of the risks of the drugs. Criminalization has everything to do with what group is associated with the drugs.
In the 1870s, anti-opium laws were passed in response to Chinese immigrants. Blacks were the target of anti-cocaine laws in the South in the early 1900s. Laws making marijuana illegal were passed initially in the Midwest and Southwest in the 1910s and 1920s. The target? Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans. Today Latino and African-American communities are subject to broad disproportionate drug enforcement and sentencing guidelines.
In 1971, a “war on drugs” was declared by US President Richard Nixon. Using taxpayer dollars and executive privilege, he greatly increased the size of national drug control agencies. Also pushed through Congress by Nixon were the first mandatory sentencing and early no-knock warrant laws. In response to the anti-Nixon protests which were led primarily by “hippies,” Nixon temporarily put marijuana on Schedule One, the most restrictive drug category available. A government commission, appointed by Nixon unanimously recommended decriminalizing the possession and distribution of marijuana for personal use. Nixon ignored the report and rejected the conclusions.
Ronald Reagan expanded the drug war. The 1980s and 1990s saw skyrocketing rates of imprisonment for drug users and the total people behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses grew. The numbers went from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997. The public’s concern about drug use grew during the 1980s. Media portrayals of people addicted to “crack” led Reagan’s wife, Nancy, to coin the slogan “Just Say No.”
The stage was set for zero tolerance policies. The attitude of the 1980s were clarified by Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates who said he believed that casual drug users should be taken out and shot. Gates instituted the first DARE drug education program. Quickly spreading nationwide, DARE grew despite no evidence of its effectiveness.
In the late 1980s, America’s political climate turned towards hysteria with regards to drug use and harsh penalties by Congress and state governments further increased the prison population. In 1985, thanks to media attention, the percentage of Americans who viewed drug use as the “number one” problem was only 4 percent. That figure grew until in September 1989 it reached 64 percent. The media lost interest and the percent dropped a full 10 percentage points within a year. The laws stayed in place though and the number of arrests and imprisonments continued to rise.
In 1982 when Bill Clinton spoke out in favor of treatment versus incarceration, things looked like they might change. After a few months in the White House though, he began to rely on the drug war strategies of his Republican predecessors.
In 2014, politicians routinely admit to having used marijuana, and even cocaine, when they were younger. The war on drugs and the accompanying assault on American citizens continues. US President Obama though might be helping to turn things around.
Obama has advocated for reforms including the reduction of crack/power sentencing differences, ended the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs and is supporting state medical marijuana laws.
Progress is slow, but America is seeing a shift in the momentum behind current drug policy.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman won’t be around to see society’s change towards the addictive disease; but maybe soon, someone else will get the help they need instead of facing the stigma alone in a bathroom with a needle in their arm.
Editorial by Jerry Nelson