Opinion: Reconsidering the Image of Heroin Addiction - Drug Week


By Alexa Hornbeck

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Following the recent death of the beloved movie star Philip Seymour Hoffman, one considers the question of why extremely brilliant people have a tendency towards heroin addiction. Who ever thought of heroin as a positive lifestyle choice? Surprisingly, heroin was first manufactured by Bayer, a pharmaceutical company of Germany, to aid in the treatment for tuberculosis, and be a remedy for morphine addiction. The same drug that is currently being referred to in the headlines as “America’s silent assassin” and the symbol of a “broken culture”.

Society classifies psychoactive drugs and understands their effects during health class in high school — an intoxicating scheme of depressants, stimulants, and hallucinogens. To identify a drug we learn to think in doses, weight, consistency, color, smell, and texture. What isn’t learned is how drugs like heroin become dangerous forms of recreation, rather than useful medical aids. For a select few of us, the question eventually changes, from “What type of drugs are there and what are their effects?” to the aging curiosity, “How much can I take, and how much can I get for my money?”

The relationship between the scientific innovation of drugs and the creation of the subcultures that surround them is the human psyche’s ability to create one from the other. Developments in organic chemistry in the 1800s helped to increase the traffic of drug production and distribution. By breaking down the components of a particular drug, scientists were able to isolate a drug’s most active agents. Today, many of those active agents discovered as medical aids, have evolved into often high-priced substances used by individuals for recreation. Hypodermic syringes weren’t invented for medical purposes until 1853, and has since been appropriated for personal drug use.

For centuries, drugs have been big-shot commodities in legal and illegal marketing, and remain one of the highest selling products. By the 1960s, the public’s attitude towards drugs had drastically shifted. As a tolerance for drugs developed, the culture of drugs became romanticized amongst various social circles.

The media aired stories of drugs becoming homemade, and turned an empathetic eye towards victims of drug addiction. Drugs became prominent influences for pop musicians, and increased the popularization of altering one’s mindset as source of inspiration or escape from the spotlight. Junkies became interchangeable for revolutionaries, addiction became seen as a psychological disease, and social gatherings an opportunity to make a bet with death. In a case from 1963, titled “Robinson v. California”, the Supreme Court declared that addiction is “a disease, not a crime;” a mentality exemplified by Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings but less so in social media following a celebrity overdose.

The Narcotic Addict Rehabilitation Act of 1966 established organizations that offered medical treatment and debilitation for avid drug users. Rehabilitation centers were established on a wide scale as frequent drug usage became classified in medicine as disease, and not a personal choice. Public perception is still quite another matter since the link between crime and drugs was solidified by the distribution of heroin in the early ’70s. Soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War found that heroin was often cheaper then marijuana, and it became used to alleviate pressures of combat. In years following the Vietnam War there was a staggering increase in the crime and death caused by heroin.

As the human race evolves, so does our means of getting high. The media soon turned its attention to the role of heroin in HIV contamination in the early ’80s. The public’s tolerance for drugs that had developed in the ’60s and ’70s quickly changed to intolerance. In 1988 the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs created the Anti Drug Abuse Act, which “reinstated the possibility of probation” and carried out penalties aimed at targeting the “drug distributor, but not the drug user.” Still the drug trade is, at face value, like a car dealership. Depending on the dealer, the product will have a different value and quality. Yet, even if you buy the most brand new car on lot — from the most truth worthy dealer — you’re still choosing to take a joy ride with life.

Since the early 19th century, there has been a constant tug-of-war game between scientific developments with drugs and popular adoption of a drug. The increase of heroin addicts has promoted the establishments of methadone clinics, and syringe-exchange programs. It is true that stricter penalties have been enforced regarding the sale of drugs. It is also true that there has been a substantial increase in public education about the physical and psychological effects of drugs. Despite continued prohibition via “The War on Drugs” there is to be an exponential growth in the number of people tangled up in heroin addiction that Hoffman’s death has cast a spotlight on. The question to consider is why this growth exists.

Sure, there is a certain humanist understanding of why someone might want to live life on the edge. However, there is nothing appealing about dangling from a cliff for so long that the suspension is comforting, rather than thrilling. The effects of heroin are said to alleviate internal and external pressures, in order to reach a type of heaven-on-earth. Yet, if one chooses to experience heroin they also risk entering into the inescapable and lonely hell of addiction.

Self sacrifice in the form of ritual seems a common trend for artists to connect with their art as close as they possibly can. ‘Live fast, die young’ became the mantra born out of mythologizing pop culture icons like the ‘27 club’.

Tom Junod, a culture news writer at Elle magazine ponders the question of whether actors must sacrifice themselves for the sake of fulfilling their roles.

“The only way that Philip Seymour Hoffman could have died in a manner more consistent with the character he created would have been if he and died by auto-erotic asphyxiation… His metier was human loneliness-the terrible uncinematic kind that was very little to do with high-noon heroism and everything to do with everyday empathy — the necessary curse of human self-knowledge. He held up a mirror to those who could barely stand to look at themselves, and invited us not to only take a peek but to see someone we recognized, ” writes Junod.

To see self knowledge as a curse is a risky game. In Greek tragedy, the term “hamartia” is used to describe a tragic flaw of a hero who commits a wrong action in ignorance of their own nature. Essentially, the term implies that while Eve knew not to eat the apple, it was inevitably apart of her human nature to make the wrong decision. Are the circumstances of Hoffman’s death a 21st century case of hamartia? If this is true, then our ability to avoid living a life ruled by drug addiction may be no more within our control, then say, being born colorblind.

Addiction can be different for each individual who experiences it, and isn’t necessarily intrinsic to human nature, as it is often presented in health class. It isn’t as hard as it may appear to sympathize with how someone can become a heroin addict, considering heroin is highly reputable as being one of the most addictive drugs.

However, over the past few weeks a number of social media sites have passed Hoffman’s death as an unpreventable tragedy. To mourn his death in such a way is to say that the substance — not the addiction to it — is to blame, yet if this is true we are all in danger of becoming victims of heroin overdose.

In our sympathy for those who have lost their lives to drug addiction, it seems impossible to know if the hook is the drug, the person, or the environment. In NA and AA meetings, individuals are taught to view their addiction as an allergy. An allergy is a disorder in the immune system that forces one to make specific life style changes depending on the severity of their symptoms. To recover from an addiction, likewise, is to abide by specific restrictions of everyday life. Addiction forms in two ways: the sickness of the mind to crave a particular drug, and the physical impact of that drug on the body. The victims of a drug addiction suffer greatly from a continual feeling of craving. If the craving persists over time, the feeling becomes more important than life and the drug itself. Ultimately, we must be aware that there is never a tangible end to the feeling of craving. For once the thing that is craved is obtained, the feeling no longer exists.

Heroin, at its beginnings, was discovered as a medicine to be used in moderation. Subcultures that have grown from the proliferation and evolution of opioids are well-beyond what could have ever been conceived. It should be recognized that addicts exemplify a great deal of heroism in enduring each day under the never-ending strain of addiction. Philip Seymour Hoffman exhibited immense willpower in staying away from heroin for 23 years. Yet as we cringe at the yearly increase in drug death tolls, this public health issue (not law enforcement issue) must be examined of how to make addiction less reputable, and more preventable.