After Whitney Houston’s sudden death last Saturday, Tony Bennett didn’t hesitate to publicly make the link to drugs that many suspected. At a Grammy pre-party, the 85-year-old addict in recovery stated: “First it was Michael Jackson, then it was Amy Winehouse and now the magnificent Whitney Houston. I’d like to have every gentleman and lady in this room commit themselves to get our government to legalize drugs.”
Some point out that the problem with Bennett’s statement is that it directly links the deaths of three famous musicians to the prohibition of drugs, which isn’t exactly the case. The drugs that killed Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse (and likely Whitney Houston if the prescription medication bottles found in her room are any indicator) were all legal. Jackson and (quite likely) Houston overdosed on prescription drugs prescribed by doctors while Winehouse died of acute alcohol intoxication.
Nevertheless, though legalizing currently illicit drugs wouldn’t affect the availability of prescription medication or alcohol, Bennett’s treatment for the recent rash of celebrity ODs is spot on. Jackson, Winehouse and Houston were undoubtedly all chronic drug addicts and died because of it, despite having the means to seek treatment. But considering the social stigma that relates drug use and addiction to weak willpower and poor morals, who can blame them? Society’s demonization of drug addiction prevents addicts from admitting their own problems and hinders or prevents them from seeking treatment. This is especially true for celebrities who often have all their actions in the spotlight, whether they want them to be or not.
Legalizing drugs could also help to alleviate the issue of drug overdoses by allowing recreational drug users, who prefer currently illicit drugs, access to the prescriptions they abuse to indulge in their vices. Though it seems like increasing the number of people using currently illegal drugs would increase the number of people who overdose, there are several seldom-considered factors that increase the risk associated with prescription drug abuse:
1. Prescription drugs lack the taboo that illicit drugs have. Many prescription drug abusers consider it “self-medication” rather than drug abuse and addiction. This perpetuates their denial if they develop a dependency.
2. Popping a pill is easier than smoking a joint or snorting a line. Many avoid recreational drugs because the route of administration often involves an unfamiliar activity like smoking, snorting, or injecting a substance. Ingesting a pill is a task that the majority of Americans have done countless times before.
3. The medical industry wants to ignore the issue. Pharmaceutical companies don’t want their products to be linked to the negative social effects of addiction because it would likely decrease their profits. Doctors who over-prescribe medication have the same incentive.
It isn’t hyperbolic to call prescription-drug abuse the next crack cocaine. The sale of opioids (drugs like OxyContin, Demerol and Vicodin) increased by more than sixfold between 1997 and 2006. During that same period, overdose deaths increased by a factor of 2.6.
You could add more names to the list of OD’d celebs. Singer Brittany Murphy. Comedian Greg Giraldo. Playmate Anna Nicole Smith. Drummer James “The Rev” Sullivan. It’s an epidemic. And Tony Bennett’s recommendation to fight fire with fire by legalizing illicit recreational drugs may be the only way to slow it.
David Washington is a second-year political science major.