While we’ve been fighting the War on Drugs, we’ve been leaving drug addicts behind. It’s time to change that.
When I was 21, my best friend died of a drug overdose. As far as his family and friends know, it was the first time he had tried heroin, although some of us knew that he had been struggling with an addiction to painkillers. What fewer people knew was the origin of his addiction and where it all came from – anxiety and depression that had followed him from the time I first met him, despite his laugh-it-off demeanor and the unnerving amount of practicality that came from a quiet college student who had a knack for Tim and Eric-style humor and would have undoubtedly gone on to do great things in design and/or comedy.
I’ve often wondered what might have turned out different if his depression had been diagnosed before he tried to self-medicate, or if someone was able to convince him that rehabilitation wasn’t a way to run away from your problems. The stigma of drug addiction is that the user should be treated as a pariah, an idiot, a “pussy”, or a scumbag, even though one of the most dangerous drugs is consumed by 66% of Americans at an average rate of four drinks a week.
Watching Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death being reported in the media and commented on in Twitter and Facebook was like opening a window that’s grown rusty over a few years, and a stark reminder that in the two and a half years since my friend died, not a whole lot has changed about the way we view drugs. The media is currently choosing to highlight either Hoffman’s career or the fact that he died with a needle in his arm, as if we couldn’t process what a drug overdose looks like without that little extra push of imagery that makes his death seem like a deleted scene in Trainspotting. What no one’s talking about is how he got to that point: a post-college slump that turned into an addiction, and a hard-fought, twenty-year period spent clean before the painful relapse which claimed his life.
Addiction is a mental illness. Sometimes, but not all, drug abuse is a manifestation of a deeper problem, like depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc. It could start as experimentation between kids who don’t know any better in high school. Or it could start as a painkiller prescribed for a post-surgery recovery that turns out to be harder to stop than you ever thought it would be. Whatever the case, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that no one starts an addiction to hard drugs because they’re tired of living happy and healthy lives.
At the federal level, the government has a tendency to either ban or ignore things it doesn’t understand. Big picture issues involving larger questions of society are especially vulnerable to this treatment, because a majority of the country, when asked, would rather the government stay out of as much as possible. But we’re reaching a breaking point: heroin use, like that of other drugs, is on the rise.
We’re finally reaching the tail end of the “War on Drugs” that was an abject failure, waged in the name of morality, and we need to start looking to the future when it comes to how we treat drugs and drug users in this country. After all, it is easier to write off further government intervention in drugs as ill-fated and stupid than doing anything about it. But future Congresses and presidents, or even state legislatures and governors, don’t have to continue this narrative. If the government were to take steps to actually help addicts rather than incarcerate them in the lucrative prison system, providing treatment instead of giving them a criminal record which does nothing but make harder their attempts to live a happy, sober life, then real progress could be made in the way of reducing drug abuse in this country.
Yes, to a certain point, the only person who can help someone with an addiction is the addict themselves. But as a society, it’s time to admit we’ve failed, and the only way to fix this is to form and implement a better drug policy – one that works to improve the lives of addicts and not accelerate them towards further personal ruin.
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