Cory Monteith’s Death: It’s Time to End Addiction Stigma
When it was announced that Glee star Cory Monteith had been found dead in a Vancouver hotel, fans around the world went into mourning, but Monteith’s death at just 31 has also provoked angry reactions that we are not doing enough to help people suffering from substance addictions.
Glee Actor’s Death Deemed a “Most Tragic Accident”
Monteith was found dead by staff at the Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel on Saturday after the actor failed to check out of his room. A police statement was swiftly issued that, though unable to reveal the precise cause of death, made it known the police suspected no foul play had been involved.
Rumors soon began circulating that drugs were a likely cause of Monteith’s death, as Monteith had only just completed a stint in rehab after voluntarily and with the support of his girlfriend, fellow Glee actor Lea Michele, seeking help in late March of this year for an alcohol and drug addiction — this a relapse of previous addiction problems that had plagued the actor as a teenager.
Those assumptions were proved correct this week when the British Columbia Coroners service issued the following statement regarding Monteith’s death:
Post-mortem testing, which included an autopsy and toxicological analysis, found that Mr. Monteith, aged 31, died of a mixed drug toxicity, involving heroin and alcohol. It should be noted that at this point there is no evidence to suggest Mr. Monteith’s death was anything other than a most-tragic accident.
Vancouver police have now said there is no compelling reason to continue an investigation into Monteith’s death, though there are conflicting opinions as to whether it would be viable to launch a probe into finding who Monteith’s supplier was.
Meanwhile, gleeks around the world continue to mourn, with a deluge of tributes from his co-stars including a very fitting impromptu song dedication from co-star Matthew Morrison, open displays of mourning at the hotel where Monteith died and a London Glee convention being turned into a kind of support group for devastated fans.
However, with the news having now had time to settle and the media meat grinder wanting to make the most out of this story, reports are starting to take on a different tone.
The least of them, NPR, has seen fit to remind us that Cory Monteith was not his Glee character Finn Hudson, the all American jock who evolved into a soulful and dependable small town guy, and though that fact may feel a little raw, it is worth the sting.
Monteith, by many everyday standards, had a tough adolescence. At just the age of 13, he had begun abusing drugs, by 16 he had left school and by 19, following an intervention from his friends and family, entered a drug rehabilitation center.
These details are widely available, Monteith had talked openly about his troubled past and are non-too lurid given the context of how Monteith died.
Yet few have dared actually talk about the true issue here: that heroin use is rising in popularity and that society at large is systematically failing to engage on the drug addiction issue.
There are some notable exceptions, however.
An NBC News article titled “Glee’ star’s OD shows the new, fresh face of heroin” hits the eye hard and pulls no punches in the copy either:
“I deal with drug users every day,” Dr. Richard Clark, an emergency room physician and director of toxicology at the University of California San Diego Medical Center, told NBC News. “The stereotypical user on the street? That’s the past as far as heroin use in the U.S. is concerned. Lots of people are using it these days – kids, teenagers, white-collar workers.”
Every one of these deaths is tragic. They died of a disease that lies to them. Great talent and intelligence do not protect us from any illness.
We can safely watch such a tragedy, gawking as we drive by the destruction, insulated from the suffering and unable to help. But addiction is all around us and we need to respond to the rising death toll.
It is true that many in the medical community already class addiction as a disease, though it is also true that there may be compelling reasons to differentiate it as “disease-like,” but not truly fitting the disease model.
Next Page: The false choice of tough love versus enabling drug abuse.
The frameworks the media uses to present us stories about substance abuse and drug addiction is incredibly limiting and is likely contributing to the misinformation that keeps us from properly engaging with the issue.
The first framework is shame and stigma. You will rarely read or hear naked epithets like “they could stop if they wanted to,” “they got themselves into this mess,” and “addiction only affects the weak,” but they are often to be inferred from the out and out resistance to engaging with drug use in any other way than through the lens of criminality and the so-called War on Drugs.
Just as trite is the well meaning but false reverse of the coin that sees substance abusers labeled as being “unable to help themselves” and that they “are not responsible for their behavior.”
While, true, users cannot often help themselves while drug-addled, they are, with support, ultimately responsible for maintaining their recovery. Infantilizing addicts as helpless in the face of relapse does them a disservice and brings us perilously near a self-fulfilling prophecy, as many former addicts have also pointed out.
The notion that we are only allowed to pick from one of the two approaches is untrue, yet this idea persists. This is in part down to the way we have historically institutionalized stigma against substance abuse through morality-driven prohibition laws.
The War on Drugs is Hampering Progress and Costing Lives
Maintaining a blanket ban on drugs and treating drug use — as opposed to the production and supplying of drugs — as a criminal offense without recognizing or accounting for the medical issues (and co-issues of depression, and other altered states) behind such substance abuse twice condemns those with the predisposition toward addiction to an increased likelihood of dangerous patterns of behavior.
Moreover, politicians from across the world readily admit the global War on Drugs isn’t working. In the face of such facts, we are forced to ask, what are the alternatives then?
It is Vancouver, where Monteith died, that actually yields an example of truly engaging on this issue. Recognizing that drug availability is plentiful — Vancouver has been called the heroin capital of North America — the city’s authorities in 2003 opened the doors on a drug safe-zone dubbed “InSite, North America’s only legal safe drug injection center.”
To be clear, users are not being provided with drugs at this facility (though there is a fascinating ongoing study to that effect that is also happening in Vancouver) but rather drug users can, free from the risk of arrest and with access to clean paraphernalia that dramatically cuts the chances of viral infection, take their fix under the watchful eye of InSite staff.
This has already saved lives, with medical practitioners on hand should someone overdose or have other complications. In the case of heroin use, one of the biggest dangers is users may simply stop breathing.
At the same time, staff provide engagement, encouragement and resources to help move users toward rehabilitation and abstinence, and there are encouraging signs this safe space is working.
Schemes like this push the boundaries as to what society is comfortable qualifying as acceptable treatment for addicts, but it is such innovative schemes, that also include pay by results drug abstinence incentives and self-empowering solidarity groups, that offer hope where old modes of engagement and so-called tough love treatment have failed.
Looking at such new solutions in an unflinching manner is not only good practice, it seems it is the only way to halt the tide of deaths that result from substance abuse and addiction.
Perhaps a leading example in this regard is Portugal, a country which 12 years ago now dared to decriminalized drug use, albeit with some qualifications.
Experts, recognizing that the ideal of a drug-free world is beyond reach and that the rest of the world’s so-called War on Drugs has failed, decided on decriminalization up to the arbitrary amount of around a 10 day personal supply. Beyond that, users may be liable for the equivalent of a parking violation fine.
Drug use in Portugal has been evidenced to have declined in several key categories, and while perhaps not the resounding success media reports have claimed it to be, a thorough analysis of the fudging of data on both sides of the debate here, the approach certainly hasn’t seen drug use spiral and, perhaps even more importantly, has opened the door to new treatment approaches precisely because drug use is no longer so stigmatized.
This brings us back to Cory Monteith.
Without wishing to tastelessly capitalize on this tragedy, Monteith’s death provides an opportunity for us to finally engage with the millions of addicts in the world, and the millions still to come in our future generations, and for their sake to examine both our treatment of those suffering under addiction as well as finally admitting that the wider War on Drugs has been lost and cannot in good conscience be allowed to continue, because what is startlingly clear is our current system is outmoded and is failing — and people are dying as a result.