Reformed substance abuser Russell Brand – who’s been clean and sober for over a decade – has spent years crusading on behalf of addicts. In 2011, when his friend Amy Winehouse died of accidental alcohol poisoning, he wrote a long tribute to her, taking pains to specify that addiction is a disease: “We need to review the way society treats addicts,” he wrote, “not as criminals but as sick people in need of care.” The following year, he testified before his home country’s Parliament to advocate decriminalizing drug addiction, saying again that those suffering from the disease should be treated with compassion.
And now Brand has weighed in on the recent passing of Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died of an apparent heroin overdose early last Sunday.
The comedian begins his Guardian column in an unusual way: by declaring that the demise of, say, a wild young star like Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber would not be particularly shocking. The death of Hoffman, however – “a middle-aged man, a credible and decorated actor, the industrious and unglamorous artisan of Broadway and serious cinema” – strikes us as particularly tragic. In Brand’s eyes, however, it shouldn’t; “the man was a drug addict and his death inevitable.”
Brand doesn’t fault Hoffman himself for that inevitability. Instead, he sets his sights once more on laws that criminalize addiction. “If drugs are illegal people who use drugs are criminals,” he explains. “We have set our moral compass on this erroneous premise, and we have strayed so far off course that the landscape we now inhabit provides us with no solutions and greatly increases the problem.”
Brand goes on to accuse those who make drug laws of “deliberately creating the worst imaginable circumstances to maximise the harm caused by substance misuse,” and to cite the example of countries such as Portugal and Switzerland – both of which “have introduced progressive and tolerant drug laws,” and have subsequently “seen crime plummet and drug-related deaths significantly reduced.” Ending a blanket prohibition on drugs – which only succeeds in creating an “unregulated, criminal-controlled, sprawling, global mob-economy” – and working instead to treat addicts as victims of a pernicious, relentless disease is the only way to prevent more people from suffering Hoffman’s fate, according to Brand.
“The troubling message behind Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, which we all feel without articulating, is that it was unnecessary and we know that something could be done,” he concludes. “We also know what that something is and yet, for some traditional, prejudicial, stupid reason we don’t do it.”
Read Brand’s full column at The Guardian.