June 27, 2009 – To quote Leonard Cohen, “Everybody knows” – and according to media reports, everybody knows Michael Jackson abused prescription medications – legal medications that most likely brought about his death. Was Michael a troubled soul? It appears so. Were laws bent or broken in providing his access to these drugs? Possibly. Recent news reports suggest Hollywood has a plethora of licensed medical doctors who provide and some say “push” prescription drugs onto celebrities.
Should we judge Michael harshly for choosing to use drugs to deal with his personal challenges? Of course not – we should mourn his loss, celebrate his creativity and feel gratitude for the gifts he gave us. However there arises a nagging question – as a caring community, did we fail Michael? Could we have done better? What can we learn from his tragic story?
As we shine our collective lights on Michael Jackson’s life not only do we see an extremely talented individual but we also see a man struggling to make good choices in his life. And like many millions of others of us who choose to medicate with drugs to deal with our life’s challenges – be they legal or illegal – Michael Jackson’s choice of powerful prescription pain killers reminds us that none are immune to getting lost on the path of life and making a fatal choice.
So what is society’s responsibility? How can we help others from meeting a similar end? One important tool we have at our disposal is our drug policies. An recent experience has taught us that implementing strict approaches like prohibitions and imprisonment don’t work. America already arrests one of its citizens every 43 seconds for illegal drug possession and incarcerates more of its people than any other country in the world. Recent reports inform us that now many more deaths occur in America from the abuse of legal prescription drugs than illegal drugs and in fact, prescription drugs are the second leading cause of unintentional death in the United States. These are drugs approved for sale and prescribed by medical doctors. In light of Michael Jackson’s death, how can we continue to differentiate between the abuse of legal and illegal drugs? Which issue is more important – the legality of the drug he used or the outcome of the abuse?
To this point, a recent U.N. Global Drug Report urges global leaders to stop viewing illegal drug abuse as a criminal matter – an approach that judges and vilifies those using drugs. Rather the report’s authors encourage us to view drug abuse for what it is – a health matter – one that can severely impact emotional, physical and psychological health. Impacts that became painfully obvious in the final years of Michael Jackson’s life.
The implications of the U.N.’s recommendations are dramatic. Rather than using our limited resources to wage war on our citizens, throwing them in jail for using illegal drugs to self treat their ailments, we need to shift those resources and our approach to addressing and treating the root causes and effects of drug abuse. This will not be easy.
America does not have a public health care system, so for many Americans access to professional advice can be very costly. This is partly why some people choose to access illegal drugs instead legal drugs in the first place. Furthermore, we need to appreciate that by making certain classes of drugs illegal we socially vilify and marginalize the populations of individuals who self-medicate with those illegal drugs – and consequently, even if they are able to afford it, they often do not seek the necessary medical services that could help them assess and manage their drug use.
It’s time for major change. Our communities are littered with too many sad stories and bad outcomes from untreated drug abuse. It’s time to stop differentiating between illegal and legal drug use and begin to see all drug users as people in need of health services and compassionate support. Michael Jackson’s death is a stark reminder that we in society can judge and marginalize even our most precious contributors. Let’s celebrate Michael’s life by approaching others facing life’s challenges with acceptance, compassion and support. Let’s face it – the absence of this compassion is likely at the root of why drugs are abused in the first place.
By Richard Sharp.