Anyone who saw Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film A Late Quartet could sense an accident on its way to happening. We now know that the actor and the tortured violinist he portrayed were close to the same person. Acting is a dangerous calling, pushing its practitioners back and forth over the border of unreality.
Hoffman's death has been universally greeted as a tragedy. He struggled with addiction, seemed to recover, relapsed and died of what appears to have been an accidental overdose. The world of cinema mourns.
Does the law also mourn? It lumps Hoffman together with thousands found dead and friendless in urban back streets, also with needles in their arms. It treats them all as outlaws. Such is the double standard that now governs the regulation of addictive substances that we have had to develop separate universes of condemnation.
We cannot jail or otherwise hurl beyond the pale all who use drugs. We therefore treat some as "responsible users" and when something goes wrong mourn the tragedy. Offices, schools, hospitals, prisons, even parliament, are awash in illegal drug use. Their illegality is no deterrent. The courts could not handle proper enforcement, the prisons could not house the "criminals". In Hoffman's case his friends clearly knew that he was a drug addict. The police would have done nothing had they known.
So what do we do? We turn a blind eye to an unworkable law and assume it does not apply to people like us. We then relieve the implied guilt by taking Draconian vengeance on those who supply drugs to those who need them, but who lack the friends and resources either to combat them or to avoid the law. Hospitals and police stations are littered each night with the wretched results.
There are no winners in the illegality of drugs, except the lucky ones who make money from it without getting caught. The only hope is that high-profile casualties such as Hoffman's might lead a few legislators to see the damage done by these laws and correct their ways. At least in some American states the door of legalization is now ajar. Not so in Britain, where the most raging addiction is inertia.