"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. So they have to get it through a doctor, not just some gangsters that sell it under the table."
That's what Tony Bennett said at a pre-Grammy Awards party on Saturday night, shortly after learning of the tragic death of Whitney Houston, and he's exactly right.
One of us (Neill) is a former police officer who fought — and lost friends — on the front lines of the failed "war on drugs." The other (Katharine) learned about the commonality of human pain in another difficult way — spending two years in a residential facility ("rehab"). She wasn't there for drugs, but many of those struggling alongside her were.
Also read: Whitney Houston's Death: Why the Media Sidestepped the Lurid Details
There has been some confusion and criticism over Bennett's remarks and, because of our experience dealing with the pain and heartbreak of drug abuse and harmful drug laws, we feel compelled to expand upon his heartfelt remarks in the hopes that we can help break through some of the misunderstanding underlying the reaction to what Bennett said.
Bennett is an addict in long-term recovery in his own right — once nearly dying from an overdose. Regardless of whether Houston's death ends up being shown to be caused by drugs, it's understandable he would be moved by her long-term struggle with drugs and by the recent series of other drug-related celebrity deaths.
Some of those criticizing Bennett's remarks don't seem to understand the role that prohibition of some drugs plays in stigmatizing all people battling addiction — whether to legal or illegal drugs — and how punitive drug laws create roadblocks to recovery.
For example: "Bennett's remarks were misleading because in every case he mentioned we are talking about legal prescription drugs or alcohol," addiction specialist Marty Ferrero told Fox News.
"No, sorry. She got legal drugs from her doctor," said songwriter Diane Warren. "So that was inappropriate," she told the Los Angeles Times.
These well-meaning folks sadly miss the point. It doesn't matter if you're hooked on alcohol, Xanax or illegal drugs like heroin and cocaine — prohibition for some drugs stigmatizes all people struggling with addiction.
Addicts are not defined simply by their drug of choice nor the drug that is or is not their ultimate cause of death. Their entire lives are tragically plagued by the stigma that criminalization heaps upon them, and the marginalized underworld prohibition thrusts them into.
That is a painful and deadly component of the experience of anyone unlucky enough to live with a disease that, unlike cancer, our government tries to battle with handcuffs.
Maer Roshan of TheFix.com — a great news source on addiction and recovery issues — rightly explains, "We can't tackle this epidemic in a piecemeal kind of way. At detoxes and rehabs across the country, prescription pill addicts and alcoholics and meth-heads and coke-heads all share the same plight, and suffer from the same scatter-shot treatment."
We wonder how easy it is for others to understand the isolating nature of living with any mental illness, much less addiction. Katharine watched a presidential election and inauguration from inside a rehab facility. Through the window of Facebook, she watched her high school class mature into adulthood, making friends at college, holding new nieces. She stopped receiving mail from all but a select few friends. She questioned her compatibility with a world that viewed her to be so foreign.
One day, a friend of Katharine's with a decent chunk of clean and sober time received a call about the relapse of a family member. Despite his recent success in working his program and making amends, he was labeled as blameworthy, his influence criminal. It seemed that his confidence faltered under the weight of such hurtful words. That is the moment when efforts to overcome and all the clean and sober time in the world still can never be enough to wash away the stigma of "criminal."
Also read: Whitney Houston's Death: Coroner Issuing Subpoenas for Drug Records
This blame-directing and stigmatization is a significant obstacle in recovery. Many addicts come to view themselves as innately "criminal." That label limits their perception of not only their practical options, but their fundamental worth as human beings.
So there we were. In the shadowy underworld of stigma.
These sorts of flashes of memory circulating in the collective consciousness of the recovery community haunt us. They linger just below the surface, and that's why when Tony Bennett cried out in catharsis, we were already right there with him. That anguished exasperation is why we care, and why we want no more of our loved ones to succumb to the weight of that word. The "criminal" label makes addiction, a deadly disease, ever more fatal.
For all Katharine's isolation, the addicts had it worse. At least her illness, her existence, wasn't illegal. A mess of laws divided her from her peers, both conceptually and — upon arrest — literally. Even addicts themselves were fragmented into illegal addicts or legal addicts, or for those who used cocaine and alcohol, both.
The people we've lost were not monsters. They were and are worthy of love and respect. They still remain central inspirations to us, encouraging us to excel and be better human beings. They are our hearts, not our tormentors. Prohibition is our tormentor.
When Tony Bennett pleaded for legalization in a moment of grief, he took his influence and effectively celebrated the dignity of the ghosts that so many others live with, of the mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, brothers, sisters and friends of millions of Americans who are our first kisses, parents, friends and heartbreaks. He confirmed their humanity and reminded us it's worth fighting for.
And he reminded us that recovery is possible. That recovery is about hope, not demonization. And that sadly, an addict committed to procuring drugs — legal or illegal — will find a way.
Thinking otherwise is simply trying to exert control over things that we cannot change. He asked for our courage. And I think we'd be wise to listen.
It's heartening to hear drug policy officials in the Obama administration proclaim that drug abuse is a health problem that requires a balanced strategy and that "we cannot arrest or incarcerate our way out of a problem this complex."
But let's do and not just say it.
We appreciate that in President Obama's just-released 2013 budget request, the administration appears to finally be shifting some resources away from punishment and towards treatment and recovery. But it's not happening fast enough, and the fact that far more resources are still being devoted to supply-side strategies like arrest, incarceration and interdiction, as compared to demand reduction strategies like access to treatment, is simply unconscionable.
Despite Obama officials' rhetoric about transforming our drug control strategy into one that recognizes addiction as the disease it is, this administration is spending more money on failed law enforcement approaches to drug control than the Bush administration ever did.
So, despite what Obama drug czar Gil Kerlikowske says, this is still a war. And it always will be as long as there's a gaping hole between glowing rhetoric and the harsh reality of the drug control budget.
So how do we move forward?
Tony Bennett, during his emotional remarks, suggested we should look to Amsterdam for answers: "Let's legalize drugs like they did in Amsterdam. No one's hiding or sneaking around corners to get it. They go to a doctor to get it."
While it is true that in the Netherlands, like in much of Europe, drugs are treated as much more of a health than a crime issue, no country has yet "legalized" these drugs. In Amsterdam, the government does tolerate storefront sales of marijuana, but they don't in any way actually control and regulate its production, and they don't control the other "drugs of abuse" either.
There is a growing call by leaders across Europe and in Latin America for a move away from prohibition and toward regulation, but many countries are afraid to move ahead of the United States on this issue.
So here in America we must continue to speak out and slowly but surely change the debate surrounding this issue. As Russell Brand did after we lost Amy Winehouse, Tony Bennett has shown that it is possible to speak about reforming drug laws in a way that resonates with people. With their help, and hopefully with the help of all the other ladies and gentlemen in the room at the pre-Grammys party, we can and will remove the criminal stigmatization for people struggling with addiction.