The High Life

Voices from Hollywood to the White House are normalizing drug use—even as it destroys more lives than ever.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the most ambitious and respected actors of his generation, was found dead in his Manhattan apartment last month with a heroin needle still sticking out of his arm. He left behind his three children, ages 10, 7 and 5.

The tragedy comes in the midst of a nationwide surge in heroin overdoses.

Many media voices have blamed Hoffman’s death and the overall increase of such tragedies not on the users—but on U.S. laws that criminalize drugs.

“Would he have OD’d if drugs were regulated, controlled and professionally administered?” asked Russell Brand in the Guardian.

“Legal pot isn’t enough,” social worker Jeff Deeney wrote in the Atlantic. “If Philip Seymour Hoffman had taken his last bags to a legal injecting space, would he still be alive?”

“The drug war has failed,” Mike Adams of Natural News wrote. “If street drugs like heroin could be decriminalized, regulated, controlled and distributed in a medical context along with serious addiction treatment protocols, those who choose to abuse the drug would, at the very least, be able to count on consistent dosing and drug composition. … Hoffman’s untimely and tragic death is yet another urgent reminder that our current drug policies in America … must urgently change.”

A look at the results of America’s war on drugs confirms that it has failed. Despite spending $2.5 trillion in the four decades since President Nixon declared that war, illicit drugs today are easier than ever to obtain, potencies are far greater, and drug use and overdose rates are soaring to unprecedented heights.

From 1980 to 2008, the number of America’s drug poisoning deaths increased sixfold. Since then, it has continued to skyrocket. Heroin deaths have gone up about 45 percent just in the last five years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc) reported that in 2009, drug overdoses surpassed car accidents to become the leading cause of accidental deaths in the United States.

The death toll is equivalent to a hundred 757s crashing and killing everybody on board every year.
Dan Bigg, Chicago Recovery Alliance
“The death toll is equivalent to a hundred 757s crashing and killing everybody on board every year,” said Dan Bigg of the Chicago Recovery Alliance. “But this doesn’t make the news.” It takes a death by someone of Hoffman’s prestige to force the media to acknowledge the pandemic, however fleetingly.

It’s clear that America’s vaunted war on drugs has utterly failed. But do this failure and Hoffman’s death show that the U.S. should hoist up the white flag on the drug war? Is the solution to the rising number of lawbreakers to abolish the laws?

Prescription for Addiction

Some of the arguments for legalization may sound compelling at first listen. But the increasing numbers who cry out for “an end to drug prohibition” seem to forget that 60 percent of all drug overdoses are from pharmaceuticals that are already legal and regulated.

And deaths are only the tip of the needle. For each person who dies from legal drug overdose, 10 more are so damaged that they require long-term abuse treatment, 32 more need emergency medical care, 130 more are drug-dependent, and 825 more are using them illegally. So each death represents about a thousand people abusing or misusing pharmaceuticals to some degree.

When you talk to people who are using heroin today, almost all of them will tell you that their opioid addiction began with exposure to painkillers.
Dr. Andrew Kolodny
All these rates—death, addiction, abuse and misuse—have gone up as doctors have issued an increasing number of prescriptions. According to ims Health, pharmacies dispensed more than $9 billion in prescription opioid painkillers in 2011, which was more than twice the amount a decade earlier. Today, one in five Americans have at least one psychiatric medication prescription.

Legal pharmaceuticals are also proven to lead hordes of people on to illicit drugs. “When you talk to people who are using heroin today,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, chief medical officer for the Phoenix House Foundation, “almost all of them will tell you that their opioid addiction began with exposure to painkillers. … It’s not easy to get the opioid genie back into the bottle.”

These users become hooked on legal prescription opioids and then discover that illicit heroin is easier to obtain, less expensive and more potent than the prescription med. Many make the switch. The end result, too often, is what happened with Hoffman.

No matter how carefully regulated and controlled, if we legalized street drugs, the U.S. drug plague would only worsen. So, the failure of the war on drugs isn’t a result of the laws that ban narcotics. For the real cause, you have to look for something else. Something that is hiding in vivid, high-definition, plain sight.

Glamorizing Gomorrah

“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life,” Oscar Wilde said. Human minds—especially younger ones—are often highly susceptible to the influence of music, movies, magazines and other media and art. What we see in movies and hear in songs, we’re often inclined to imitate.

So much of our drug problem is created by an entertainment industry that glamorizes drug culture. Take Justin Bieber, for example. He travels the world smoking cannabis, sometimes dodging arrest and sometimes not, yet he remains one of pop culture’s most iconic figures, with millions of die-hard “Beliebers” practically reverencing him as a god. Then there’s Miley Cyrus, who often smokes pot on stage to the cheers of thousands of young fans because, in her words, it’s “really funny.” She sings songs about her love of illicit drugs and openly discusses her experiences using peyote, cocaine, marijuana and molly. In a Rolling Stone interview, she called the last two her “happy drugs.” It’s a similar situation with Lil Wayne, Justin Timberlake, Seth Rogen, Snoop Dogg, Dave Chappelle and many, many others. Hollywood often depicts drug use as the hallmark of trendiness. It should come as no surprise when young people who adore these celebrities decide to experiment with recreational narcotics.

Sometimes, though, entertainment is more subtle.

For example, the tv show Breaking Bad recounted the exploits of a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who turns to a life of crime, cooking and selling extremely potent, blue methamphetamine. The gritty show was a smash hit and is regarded as one of the greatest television series of all time.

But in 2010, two years into the series, a new strain of blue crystal meth—dyed to look like the show’s signature drug—began to appear on the streets of Kansas City. Then in 2012, a real-life chemistry teacher in Texas was arrested for selling homemade meth at the school where he taught. In 2013, a month after the show’s ultra-hyped series finale, Oklahoma police seized 40 pounds of crystal meth dyed “Breaking Bad blue.” It was one of the largest meth busts in history. In January of this year, another strain of blue meth began appearing in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado. Also in January, one of Breaking Bad’s biggest fans (who had previously won a high-profile contest to watch the final episode with the stars of the show) was arrested for possession of more than $1 million of synthetic drugs.

Some may argue that Breaking Bad didn’t glamorize crystal meth use, but it certainly did normalize the idea of making, dealing and using drugs in the minds of many of its viewers. And for a portion of the audience, it validated and sensationalized their existing destructive drug habits. For others, it appears to have inspired them to “break bad” themselves, and turn to lives of criminal behavior.

This is just one example of the power pop culture has on the populace. Breaking Bad is far from the only drug-themed production in pop culture.

Movies about illicit drug use have been rising sharply for years. In the 1950s, only 16 such films were produced. That number grew to 23 for the 1960s, and then to 61 for the 1970s. The climb continued, reaching 77 for the 1980s and 139 for the 1990s. For the 2000s, the number almost doubled to 276. The current decade is on pace to smash that record. In more ways than one, we are entertaining ourselves with drugs.

The same pattern has been underway with popular music. Just a few decades ago, drug-themed songs were fairly rare, but in 2005, the American Public Health Association examined the bestselling songs of several genres and found that one third of them referenced illicit drug use. A separate study found that, in the rap genre, more than 60 percent of songs referred to using illegal drugs.

Not so long ago, drug arrests of famous people were relatively rare. They were viewed as shameful and often resulted in boycotts and protests. Now such occurrences seem to happen weekly, and the public cheers on celeb-stoners and practically applauds them for their abuse.

Some movies, shows and songs that mention drugs don’t promote smoking cocaine any more than Schindler’s List promotes Nazism. But a stupefying number do glorify narcotics. Song after song and film after film talks down the dangers of drugs, removes their stigma, and whispers to the people of the nation: Dealing is glamorous, excess is poetic, getting high is normal.

Puzzlingly, all of this pro-narcotic propaganda is multiplying at the same time as Washington injects billion after billion into the tattered arteries of the drug war. The U.S. is talking out of both sides of its mouth—and the side many Americans are listening to is the one with a joint hanging casually from it.

Beyond Entertainment

Sadly, those who glamorize drug use and minimize its dangers are no longer confined to the world of art and entertainment. Leading business moguls, affluent scientists and even America’s highest authority are now singing the praises of an occasional—or habitual—tryst with narcotics.

The late Steve Jobs, one of the most influential entrepreneurs in history, made no attempt to hide his use of recreational drugs. In fact, he said taking lsd was “one of the most important things” in his life, and credited the drug with opening his mind and enabling him to become the innovator he was.

And consider this story: Once there was a teenage boy who enjoyed some of the edgier aspects of American youth culture. He was in a type of gang, he regularly smoked marijuana and even used cocaine from time to time. Then he ended that chapter of his life, worked his way into the political sphere and ended up as the president of the United States of America!

That is the way Barack Obama seems to want his story to be understood. He chooses his words carefully when discussing his drug use, and he doesn’t want the world to forget it. Using pot and cocaine was a rite of passage for him—a part of his journey toward success. It was a vital part of his “path to enlightenment.”

That narrative blends smoothly with pop culture’s increasing embrace, celebration and glamorization of illicit drug use.

It’s important for [legalization of marijuana] to go forward [because it’s no more than] a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.
U.S. President Barack Obama
In January, the president said: “It’s important for [legalization of marijuana] to go forward” because smoking the drug is no more than “a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”

The Drug-Free America Foundation said the president’s comments show that he is either “seriously ill-informed about the issue or is completely ignoring warnings from his highly esteemed advisers.” The foundation said it was “an irresponsible move for such a person in the most highly regarded position in this country.”

Whether the president likes it or not, he plays a key role in setting the moral tone of the United States. His decision to wade into this controversial topic and flippantly undercut U.S. law is intensifying the nation’s appetite for drugs and lawlessness.

Want evidence? Back in 1969, when Gallup conducted the first poll on the topic, 12 percent of Americans were in favor of legalizing marijuana. Over the next 40 years, the public responded to pop culture’s suggestions, and that number gradually and slowly climbed 28 percentage points by the time President Obama was elected. During his time in office, the climb has rapidly accelerated, gaining 18 percentage points in just 5 years. It now stands at 58 percent. For the first time in history, the majority of Americans favor legalizing pot.

How could we expect the war on drugs to succeed when U.S. pop culture is dripping with drug glamorization? How could it be anything but a spectacular failure when leaders—including the president himself—routinely downplay the dangers of narcotics?

To solve America’s drug addiction, the nation would have to stop talking out of both sides of its mouth. Entertainment would need to stop aggressively pushing such destructive themes, politicians would need to stand in solidarity with anti-narcotic efforts, and laws would need to be consistently enforced. Yet, even if Washington somehow implemented all these drastic measures, much of the demand for drugs—which is the central problem—would remain.

A Complete Solution

The only way to completely rehabilitate America’s addiction would be to totally snuff out every individual’s demand for drugs. To the pragmatist, this may sound like a non-solution—like saying, “Let’s just wave a wand that magically makes everyone healthy, happy, productive, reliable, rational, stable and loving, toward themselves and others.”

But there really is a way to remove all demand.

Why do so many crave a substance that will alter their mind, dull their pain, satiate their appetite and make them forget themselves? Because they feel empty. They have been duped into believing unimportant things are meaningful, and that meaningful things are unimportant.

Addiction is complex, and there is a tendency among some prohibitionists to sometimes oversimplify it. Nevertheless, how could someone like Hoffman—with three beautiful, young children, the admiration of millions and a comfortable life—trade it all in for a needle?

Russell Brand’s Guardian piece offers an answer: “[I]n spite of all the praise and accolades, in spite of all the loving friends and family, there is a predominant voice in the mind of an addict that supersedes all reason, and that voice wants you dead. This voice is the unrelenting echo of an unfulfillable void.”

This “void” is actually not just inside addicts, but all people. The Creator God made human beings so that, without Him in our lives, we are incomplete. Without His Holy Spirit in and completing us, a deep emptiness nags at all men and women.

Mankind’s Creator planted within us a deep longing for something beyond ourselves. We crave a purpose, a connection with others, a cause, to be part of something bigger than ourselves. But more than that, we actually need a relationship with the true God. And a relationship with the Creator is the only thing that can fill this God-shaped void in our lives.

The majority of people try to fill this void with devotion to man-made gods like Vishnu, Buddha, Krishna, Mary or a false Jesus. But it doesn’t work. Many try to fill it with devotion to friends or family, which can be healthy but doesn’t fit into that God-shaped hole. Some try to fill it with a pious devotion to knowledge, entertainment or career. That doesn’t work either. Some turn to illicit sex. Others try to fill it with substance abuse.

Mind-altering drugs can make a person feel like he has filled that emptiness! But only for as long as the high lasts. Then the emptiness returns—this time a little deeper, a little more urgent, a little sharper. A user reaches for the pipe, pills or needle again, and often discovers that he requires more than before to obtain the same feeling of satiety—and thus a downward spiral results whose name is addiction.

Solomon understood the void in mankind, in part because he had experienced some of the emptiness that spurs some people to use drugs. As one of the richest men on the planet at the time, he determined to perform a perilous experiment in which he sampled almost every pleasure known to man. Solomon drank liberally, planted extraordinary gardens, constructed magnificent buildings, assembled orchestras to play at his command, and surrounded himself with all kinds of pleasures and beautiful women. “Anything I wanted,” he said, “I would take” (Ecclesiastes 2:1-10; New Living Translation).

So I came to hate life because everything done here under the sun is so troubling. Everything is meaningless
King Solomon
Yet, God was not first in his life, so he still found himself unfulfilled. At the end of this experiment, he said, “[I]t was all so meaningless—like chasing the wind. There was nothing really worthwhile anywhere” (verse 11; nlt).

All that extravagance took him beyond mere listlessness, and into misery: “So I came to hate life because everything done here under the sun is so troubling. Everything is meaningless …” (verse 17; nlt).

At the time that Mr. Hoffman injected the fatal dose of heroin into his arm, his three children—whom he is said to have loved exceedingly—were waiting for him at a playground just a block from his apartment. But by that time, his addiction was too vicious and powerful. The void in his life was too dark, urgent and jagged.

Russell Brand said the void is “unfulfillable.” But Solomon learned that a close relationship with the true God can perfectly fill that emptiness! “Here now is my final conclusion,” Solomon said at the end of his social experiment: “Fear God, and keep His commands, for this is the whole of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13; New Living, Young’s Literal).

People have been deceived into believing that deeply meaningful things—like keeping God’s commandments and living His way of life—are unimportant. But these things are actually “the whole of man”!

If every person cultivates a close relationship with the Creator of mankind—loving and fearing Him in the correct way and following His perfect law in every aspect of life—then demand for narcotics will become a hazy memory.

Scripture reveals that, at present, mankind as a whole is cut off from access to God, with very few exceptions. (This truth is explained in our free book Mystery of the Ages.) However, the good news is that, very soon, the true Jesus Christ will return to Earth. When He does, lasting healing and relapse-proof rehabilitation will begin for all of mankind’s problems. All people will be devoted to building close, fulfilling relationships with their Creator. And the void in every man’s life will be perfectly, joyously filled.