The tragic death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman

Like the chameleon manner in which he seemed to almost inhabit his screen and stage characters, the death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman in New York last week forces us to think about the stereotype of the drug addict in a different way.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died on 2 February after consuming a fatal mixture of heroin, cocaine, a

Hoffman was not a petty criminal. He wasn’t emaciated and wasted, wandering around the city looking for his next fix. On the contrary, he was a successful actor and director with an Oscar to his name and many more accolades and tributes to come, had he lived.

You would think that such a person would be immune to taking the risks involved in injecting heroin bought on the street. Heroin is, after all, supposed to be the drug of the poor. What could possibly be the allure of a street bag of heroin for someone considered by many to be the actor of his generation?

But his death forces us to think about the nature of addiction, and particularly to finally start thinking about addiction as an illness, not a lifestyle choice. It’s hard for many people to do this – especially if they have a close friend or family member who has become addicted to any drug, but especially hard, physically-addictive drugs.

One of the principles of addiction, the first step in any 12-step programme, is that in a contest between the drug and the addict, the drug always wins. The drug, and the need for the drug will cause a person to drop their moral compass and commit acts they never would have considered previously, because all they can think of, the only thing in their minds, is the need to get the drug into their system again.

Hoffman, for example, lived for 23 years free of his addiction, but then again, that terminology is inadequate. Once one becomes an addict, one is never, ever, truly free again.

We have tried to tackle the drug problem in Ireland and elsewhere by criminalising drug use and drug users, which makes as much sense as trying to drink rocks. It hasn’t worked here, or even in the US where the 30-year ‘War of Drugs’ has failed miserably. Across the US, heroin use has doubled in the last few years, and in almost every category of drug, use has increased in that time. Clearly, the ‘War’ on drugs is futile and self-defeating.

It is understandable that governments try to limit the tremendous harm done by illegal drugs, and because they cause so much death (not to mention the crime they eventuate), it may have seemed logical to fight the problem with the justice system. But the justice system cannot defeat drugs because it is the wrong tool. Like trying to fish with a tennis racquet.

The thinking is wrong. And it is the thinking of mainstream society.

Let’s suppose you decide you want a bit of heroin yourself. And you hear of bags circulating in your neighbourhood that are laced with the cancer drug Fentanyl, as we believe was the case with Hoffman. Fentanyl is a painkiller, reputed to be 100 times more powerful than morphine. Let’s also suppose that you know that these bags have been the cause of many overdoses in your area.

You might think twice. You might think to yourself, “That’s pretty dangerous, maybe I should avoid it.” But the heroin addict seeks out such bags, because they know the hit will be stronger and they rationalise their action by using ‘just a little’ and thereby getting better value for their money.

The addict is not making the decision, the drug is. And you, as a rational, non-addicted person would never make that decision, would you?

Phillip Seymour Hoffman did. Despite a loving wife and children, a great career, the respect of his peers and the world. Despite 23 clean years. All of that was not powerful enough to come between him and the drug that would kill him. Is the criminal justice system the way to prevent that from happening?

The answer is patently ‘No’. Addiction is primarily a medical problem, a disease, if you will. We don’t send in the police when a person has depression or bi-polar disease – even though they act  irrationally and out of character. We understand that this is a dysfunction within the person, not who they are in a normal context.

Yet we persist in trying to defeat drug addiction with the bluntest and most inappropriate weapon we have.

The success of alternative programs – such as the system introduced in Portugal over ten years ago – has not waned our bloody-mindedness on this issue. Portugal introduced medical and health measures to combat their drug problem – so-called ‘legalisation’, but much more accurately, ‘de-criminalisation’.

They provided drugs to users that were safe, needles that were clean and places where they could safely feed their addiction. The result? They eliminated the profits derived by the criminals who prey on addiction, reduced their annual overdose deaths from 400 to 290, and reduced by two-thirds the number of new HIV infections. That’s not my spin on what happened – it comes from Scientific American, and the clue is there in the title.

This is science, not emotion. ‘Getting tough on drugs’ is a pathetic emotional response to a real medical and social problem. We are unlikely to introduce such an innovative policy here because all our policy is made elsewhere and always complies with the European norm. We are incapable of thinking for ourselves and acting outside what the Americans and Europeans think.

Remember, in America, a substantial part of the population doesn’t ‘believe’ in evolution. And Europe, for all its history, civilisation and genius, almost self-destructed, twice.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman was going to have his fix anyway. If he’d had it in a clinic like he might have done in Portugal, when he started to go into overdose, they would have given him Naxolene (which is available in a nasal spray in the US) He would have snapped out of his comatose state and been treated medically like any other person with an illness. The final act would not have been a tragedy, and he would have had a chance to start again for maybe another 23 clean years.

Who knows what great roles he would have played after that? Father? Husband? Friend? Now we will never know.

But it wasn’t drugs that killed him, except in the direct sense. The real cause of his death, like the deaths of many others, was the stupidity of a policy that tries to fight disease by criminalising those who succumb to it instead of trying to help them fight it.



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