Drug addicts need medical care, not jail time

Phillip Seymour Hoffman died of an accidental drug overdose last Sunday. The 46-year-old actor won an Academy Award for Best Actor in the 2005 film Capote, and received three Tony nominations for his extensive work in theater, according to The Washington Post. The actor relapsed into drug use after 23 years of sobriety.

Hoffman’s death from heroin overdose was both a tragedy, and an important reminder that addiction is a medical problem, not a moral one.

Hoffman was sober for 23 years until a relapse in May 2013, according to Slate magazine. Drug addiction causes serious and permanent changes in the human brain, rewiring neural pathways and altering neurochemical reactions, according to the Journal of Neuroscience. Hoffman’s long period of sobriety did not change the fact that his brain had been fundamentally altered by drug use.

People with addiction problems have the same inability to control their condition as a person with any other disease, according to the Journal of Neuroscience.

Addiction is not a condition that can be solved with a 28-day stint in a rehabilitation center or forced away through sheer willpower; it is a lifelong and ongoing condition that requires constant management.

Despite these facts, our judicial system tends toward punishing addicts as if they were criminals, rather than seriously ill people in need of medical care.
The United States represents 5 percent of the world’s total population, but accounts for 25 percent of its prison population. An estimated 75 percent of incarcerated people have some kind of problem with drugs or alcohol, according to the Center for Addiction Management. Nearly 25,000 people are convicted on federal drug charges every year, according to NBC.

Hoffman’s death was certainly a tragedy, for his family and for the acting community at large. It also revealed the importance of recognizing addiction for the disease that it is, instead of criminalizing addicts for needing help.