Cook: Hoffman again ... and again

Cook: Hoffman again ... and again

February 12th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

It's been 10 days since Philip Seymour Hoffman, possibly our era's finest actor, was found dead and alone in his apartment, a needle in his arm.

Before Hoffman, there was Cory Monteith. And Heath Ledger. Kurt Cobain. River Phoenix. Elvis.

They are our dead celebrities, the famous ones who die from addiction. We love them with a strange love, and mourn them with a strange grief.

We leave flowers outside the buildings where they died. We dim the lights on Broadway. We visit their graves. We easily forgive their drug use and excesses; after all, it's Hollywood. After all, they entertained us so.

But in the 10 days since Hoffman died, 1,000 other Americans have also died from drug overdoses.

"Statistically speaking, more than 100 Americans whose names we'll never know died of drug overdose on the same day that Mr. Hoffman did," Stanford psychiatry professor Keith Humphreys told The Washington Post.

Their deaths are the anonymous ones. For every one Hoffman, there are 99 other everyday addicts, taking their last breath in the lonely bathroom.

They are our neighbors and colleagues, the folks we see on the sidewalk or in line at the bank. Addiction is not only for the gutters; it is suburban. It is 32 black men we call the worst of the worst. It is America.

"He didn't die because he was partying too hard or because he was depressed," Aaron Sorkin wrote in Time. "He died because he was an addict on a day of the week with a y in it."

Let's use the spotlight placed on Hoffman's death to ask ourselves, with more gravity than ever, the Big Question:

Would legalization help?

"This is an important moment in history," Russell Brand wrote in The Guardian. "We know that prohibition does not work."

Brand, a little sloppily, claims that Hoffman did not have to die. Yet because he was hooked on illegal substances, a part of his life became illegal as well.

"If drugs are illegal," Brand wrote, "people who use drugs are criminals."

Upon this basic premise we have built our entire War on Drugs. It's cost upwards of $1 trillion, produced one of the largest prison populations in the world, and felonized what seems like a whole generation of young black men.

It is not working.

When we're honest, we realize that each one of us is hooked on something and many things; it's just the luck of the draw if those things are legal.

Yes, yes, we each make our own choices, yet we must also learn to sympathize. That there but for the grace of God, we each could be Hoffman in the bathroom. Fighting drug addiction becomes less a matter of sheer will, like wrestling a grizzly, but more a matter of surrender, like calling for the lifeguard.

I can't help but wonder if legalization would save countless lives, defund the endless War on Drugs, and legitimize the suffering of addicts.

Yet as soon as those words come out, part of me hates the idea. I don't long for a society where cocaine is purchased legally; that's no city on a hill, no beacon to the world.

Colorado just legalized marijuana (does that mean everyone locked up for marijuana possession suddenly goes free?), and giggly tourists are coming from near and far to get stoned. It's like Colorado is the teenager whose parents just went out of town for the weekend. (Of course, this same description would apply to most bars on Saturday night).

Aren't we supposed to be elevating one another? Seeking and promoting the best, not the buzz? Isn't a society supposed to deem some things out of bounds?

This issue won't be resolved anytime soon. And as soon as I say yes to legalize, I think of all the reasons not to. And vice versa.

But I do believe this: we seek substances to alter the way we experience life. I reach for the wine because it eases the tiny suffering of each day. The anxiety, the impatience, the fear.

Yet then comes the switcheroo: the things we grab then grab us. Mightily. One drink becomes two, one hit turns to five.

To really fight addiction means we learn ways to sit with our pain, anxiety and all the things that make us itch. We stop running from the things that lead us toward addiction.

Meditation can do this. Were we to launch a nationwide program (The War on the Monkey Mind!) that teaches meditation to every student in every grade in every school, I have no doubt that drug use would significantly decrease within 10 years. That is not the only solution, but I cannot see how anything is solved without it.

Perhaps Hoffman's curtain call is to ask us -- as 100 people die tomorrow -- to envision again what a merciful and healthy drug policy looks like.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.