Three weeks ago, Oscar-winning actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his West Village home with a needle in his arm and seventy bags of laced heroin scattered around his apartment.
This death, like last year's passing of Cory Monteith, Heath Ledger's 2008 overdose and numerous other celebrity drug-related deaths, was seen as a tragedy — an early death of a good person caught in a bad spot. There have been memorials, and several of my friends have watched all their favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman movies.
This perception of drugs sits in stark contrast to public opinion about addiction and drug use, specifically hard drugs such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines. The traditional moral standing is that these drugs ruin lives, ruin communities and should be outlawed at all costs.
But even this mentality has been challenged in recent years. Seven years ago, marijuana used to be considered immoral by half of Americans. Now that number has fallen to under a third. This change reverberates throughout entertainment, too — the highest-rated cable television show of 2013, "Breaking Bad," had a crystal meth manufacturer as its protagonist.
These conflicting public sentiments toward drugs bring up an important fundamental question: what is the purpose of the "War on Drugs?"
To keep things simple, let's look at the negative effects of those "hard drugs" I mentioned above. Recently, the Washington Post asked how to save the lives of the 100 Americans who die of overdose every day, and the millions more who are victims of addiction. That's a good place to start — does the criminality of these drugs make addicts less likely to stay on drugs or overdose?
Short answer? No. Public disgust toward and criminalization of drug users is a problem, and only serves to cause more addiction, more pain and more death.
Think about it. If Philip Seymour Hoffman had been caught alive in the apartment with 70 doses of heroin, how would we have treated him? How have we treated 'outed' celebrity addicts (Lindsay Lohan, Charlie Sheen)?
Treating addicts like criminals and screw-ups traps drug users between a rock and a hard place — either white-knuckling it out of addiction alone like Hoffman did before relapsing, or admitting to drug use and being treated as a pariah for a couple decades until you become a "survivor" (Robert Downey Jr., Robin Williams).
Before relapse, Hoffman was considered a survivor, too.
The War on Drugs is essentially killing off addicts by forcing them into solitude — where there's no information or help — and shaking its head when there's an overdose. Anti-drug hawks use tragic deaths as arguments for stricter drug policy, when they really are a result of the prohibition.
It's easy to say we should get rid of these laws, but what actually happens when they're gone? The most extreme example is Portugal, who decriminalized all (yes, all) drugs a few years back and has seen drug deaths drop by about a third, with no significant increase in usage.
Ten years ago, Vancouver opened a clinic where heroin users can inject for free, without fear of prosecution, which has seen "more than 2 million visitors since 2003 and not a single death." While we obviously want addicts to escape from their addiction, I'll settle for them not dying in the meantime.
Proponents of the War on Drugs assume that people like me think drug abuse is okay. Truly, I believe the opposite — addiction is destructive and powerful. The difference between the two sides is approach — they want to 'ban' addiction, as though some legislation can cure addicts of a chemical dependency.
I get that the effects of addiction go beyond just the person using the substance. Addicts generally commit more crimes and are worse parents and neighbors. Drug users increase costs of healthcare and law enforcement and tend to be less productive (sometimes).
On the other hand, the reason a lot of those people are in jail is because they're avoiding the pain of withdrawal and need drugs. Once they've been in jail, employers can discriminate, public housing is off-limits, and food stamps are withheld. No job, no home, no money. Criminalizing drugs has negative side effects, too.
At the end of the day, those effects are hard to measure, and it's hard to say what's best. But one thing is easy to measure: deaths. By criminalizing the behavior of drug addicts, we're forcing them to get clean, get high or die trying.
Every day the War on Drugs is taking more casualties.
Hoffman was just a famous one.
Evan Ford is a junior in philosophy. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.