Policy

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Heroin, and Addiction: Four Blunt Points


Philip Seymour Hoffman poses for a portrait at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, on Jan. 19

Photograph by Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Philip Seymour Hoffman poses for a portrait at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, on Jan. 19

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death jarred me, as it did so many others. He was my favorite actor, a man with deep sympathy for other members of our flawed and vulnerable species. I have nothing of value to add about his artistry or what, if anything, his premature demise tells us about Hollywood. As the heroin and addiction stories evolve and morph, though, these thoughts occur:

1. The swift arrest of Hoffman’s alleged dealers is no reason for celebration. A celebrity overdose in Greenwich Village brings faster action than routine drug-fueled mayhem in New York City’s less-affluent precincts—that’s just a hard fact of life. More than anything else, what the cops discovered when they busted four people in the probe of Hoffman’s death should be unnerving. The suspects, caught with 350 bags of highly potent heroin, were easy to find and operating sloppily. They even apparently accompanied Hoffman to his neighborhood ATM. This speaks to the low prices and vast supplies of the deadly drug. Law enforcement, for all its exertions, is not significantly deterring the heroin market.

2. Which reminds me of a great movie—just not one of Hoffman’s. Director Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning Traffic (2000) provided a memorable depiction of the futility of the “war on drugs.” With its vast demand generated in no small part by otherwise “respectable” members of society, the U.S. essentially invites the traffickers to import their damaging wares. The Drug Enforcement Administration and various local police departments can run around all they like, arresting couriers and the occasional Mr. Big, but economic forces—the money in Hoffman’s bank account and millions of other accounts like it—continue to attract supply that meets demand. This, of course, raises the painful question of why we do not invest the same volume of dollars spent on drug cops in aggressive treatment programs, including mandatory treatment for those who break the law and/or can’t control themselves.

3. And yet Congress cannot, to save its life, focus on the serious issues. Hoffman’s death arose at an antic and wholly irrelevant debate in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, as members of both parties tossed clichés about the relative threats posed by various drugs. Democratic members of the House Oversight Committee beat up on the Obama administration. Representative Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) appeared to blame the White House for the actor’s overdose. “Heroin and meth are the two drugs that are ravaging our country, and every death, including Mr. Hoffman’s, is partly the responsibility of the federal government’s drug priorities,” Cohen raged incoherently. As the New York Post reported, Republican analysis proved no more illuminating:

Republicans also went after the administration—but for not being tougher on marijuana users, citing President Obama’s recent statement that pot is no more dangerous than alcohol. “We’ve gone from ‘Just say no,’ and we had ‘I didn’t inhale.’ Now it’s ‘Just say maybe’ or ‘Just go ahead,’ ” cracked Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.).

What are these guys even talking about?

4. There’s more than one way to view Hoffman’s end. Sadness seems required, but let’s pay some respect as well. Hoffman had an illness. He fought it for more than two decades. While fighting it, he did a lot of outstanding work. He improved the culture. He made a lot of friends, from famous fellow movie stars to anonymous fellow junkies. Then he fell off the wagon. I feel awful for his family, especially his kids. Let’s remember, though, that he tried. Then he ran out of fight and gave up. There are worse sins. R.I.P.

Barrett_190
Barrett is an assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. His new book, Law of the Jungle, which tells the story of the Chevron oil pollution case in Ecuador, will be published by Crown in September 2014.

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