No Room for Judgment in a Movement for Justice

American actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, recently died of a drug overdose. I was one of the people who had an immediate reaction of shock and sadness over his death, as I felt he was one of the best actors of our generation and we just suffered a great loss. He was a very relatable man and his character development was intense. I noticed many people took to social media to express their grief, which I felt comforted by. Unfortunately, I also noticed a lot of people expressing  horror, distain, and judgment for the way he died — a drug overdose.

Many people tend to be very judgmental of substance users/abusers and those who are addicted to drugs. One person even said, “If I had all that money, I would be traveling the world, not shooting heroin.”

This shows a fundamental lack of understanding and empathy for those who suffer from substance issues. Many say Hoffman was just “stupid” to make such a “bad choice.” It’s sad to me that our society has such a lack of regard for others. I feel that this stems from a lack of knowledge about substance abuse. I think if more people understood addiction, it would lead to more understanding and compassion for people struggling with one.

First of all, substance abuse is classified as a mental illness. That is because drugs alter the brain and the body systems. In addition, it is chronic and relapse is common. Also, many drugs have been found to be psychologically and physically addicting, which means their use becomes compulsive and even mandatory to survival for some people. For instance, some people who stop using drugs or alcohol can actually die. This was the case with singer Amy Winehouse, who actually died from alcohol withdrawal. In Hoffman’s case, he had been trying to get off of drugs and was found with prescriptions that help people detox. In fact, detoxing from heroin is brutal and can be fatal in some cases without help from medical professionals.

In addition, there are many factors involved in substance abuse. These include biological, psychological, and social factors. It has been proven that substance addiction is rooted in people’s genetics — that is, people can be predisposed to the likelihood of addiction. This creates a higher susceptibility of that person to become addicted to a substance. Furthermore, most people who become addicted to substances had childhood trauma, such as abuse, neglect, or sexual assault histories. These events alter developing brain chemistry and can trigger genetic predisposition to addiction, creating much higher chances of susceptibility. In either case, or in a combination of both, neither is “a choice.”

The fact is drugs are readily available to most people and many turn to substances for comfort, to self-medicate, and to numb emotional and/or physical pain. Eighty percent of all young people experiment with substances at some point, but only some will become addicted due to the factors just stated.

Some people get hooked on drugs through traditional means, such as prescriptions from their doctors. That’s actually how Philip Seymour Hoffman fell into addiction again recently– through prescription painkillers. Maybe he was using those drugs because he had a back problem or something like that. We don’t know yet. He had recently been in rehab, but recently turned to heroin.

Heroin is in the opiate family just as many prescription painkillers are. It’s unfortunate that it’s also very addictive and easy to overdose on. Heroin use is also on the rise in general and so are the overdoses, as it is often cut with even more dangerous drugs.

Addiction is the cause for 120,000 deaths a year in America alone. It is no small coincidence as the economy gets worse and income inequality rises, that more people are turning to cheap, effective, yet dangerous drugs to numb their pain more often.

My point is it’s easy to fall into a drug addiction, especially this day and age. The capitalist society we live in actually stresses people out a lot — way more than what the human brain and body can take to function properly. From our stressful jobs and environments to the lack of jobs, food, or shelter to the stress it takes to raise a family without much government or community support, to the stress of being abused, discriminated against, or living in an unsafe place, just surviving moment to moment has become an ordeal for many people.

Modern society has created very stressed out and abused people who are looking to get their needs met in maladaptive ways. Lots of people no longer feel like they have others to turn to, or they feel ashamed, angry, or depressed. So they turn to drugs, or food, or whatever it is that can give them a boost in “reward” chemicals in their brains.

Some of these coping skills are not the healthiest choices. But they can sometimes be the cheapest, most accessible, easiest, and quickest. And once you are addicted to them, it’s very hard to stop no matter how much one may want to.

This is not about a moral failing or lack of will power or motivation. In fact, drugs alter the brain so that judgment is impaired and self-control is diminished. Moreover, heroin is not something one can even get from a doctor in the United States. So to get it one has to take a risk on street drugs — which can sometimes be fatal. The drive to get the drug outweighs all risks, even that of death. The power of addiction over people’s brains cannot be underestimated.

My point here is we need to reserve judgment of people and stop morally policing them for not conforming to what we think is acceptable behavior. A person addicted to drugs is not to blame for their addiction. And putting blame on people doesn’t help them or anyone else. It actually makes things worse because it adds to the stigma and shame that people already feel, which makes them more likely to isolate and avoid treatment. Instead we need to be more understanding, compassionate, and empathetic towards people who are struggling with substance use.

A good video related to this matter is in interview with Dr. Gabor Mate with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! I feel it is a must see for anyone to understand substance abuse in the context of a capitalist society:

I believe a socialist society would create conditions by which substance abuse would dramatically decrease. First of all, we would decriminalize substance use so that people who need help with a drug addiction would get help instead of being thrown in prison for drug crimes. That would immediately drop the prison population by half. We can use the funds saved by helping people with substance abuse issues instead.

Moreover, we would end the so-called “war on drugs” and re-direct those funds towards rehabilitation and healing as well. We would effectively end the black market of drug dealing and the violence that goes along with it.

We could use the funding from these policy changes to open safe harm-reduction clinics that would legally and safely (under direct professional supervision) administer drugs at injection sites to help people with things like heroin-assisted maintenance/treatment and, hopefully, eventually help some get off of drugs altogether. This sort of policy in other countries has been proven effective at helping people and dramatically lowering the costs associated with drug addiction.

Furthermore, just by virtue of us living in a socialist society, we would be less stressed. The absence of hierarchies would equalize power among us in all ways. This would include collectively owning our own means of production in our work places, having full employment for those who want to work, having a guaranteed basic income, being supported in raising our children, having the time to nurture children and attach to them properly without being stressed, having a community to rely on in times of need, having more time to relax and take care of ourselves, having quality tax-payer funded healthcare and education, and the equalization of power and control along lines of class, race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, ability, etc.

These changes would result in a fundamental paradigm shift in social relations, and people would be less likely to encounter the trauma and stress that trigger substance abuse. Some of the root causes of substance abuse would be eliminated, dramatically reducing the issue. And for those who still developed a substance abuse issue, there would be no-cost help put in place. A socialist society is a society in which substance use is treated as a health issue and not a moral failing or criminal act.

I feel the best way to honor the lives of people we know of who have been impacted by substance use is to dedicate ourselves to bringing about a socialist society. One in which stigma will become a thing of the past, and we will embrace a new way of relating to one another in respect for personhood, dignity, self-worth, and solidarity. There is no room for judgment when we see ourselves in others.

We belong to each other in our struggle for peace and justice and, thus, we are accountable to one another. It’s only when we meet fundamental human needs that we get optimal conditions for wellbeing. So let’s let go of the judgments and embrace each other instead.


Tina Phillips

is a social worker who enjoys writing, advocacy, good food, and thrifting. She lives in Oakland, CA with her partner, Rachel, four cats, and their dog, Miss Piggy. You can read more of her writing on her blog at

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