Whitney’s “Call to Arms”

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

This weekend, Whitney Houston’s heartbreaking death became doubly tragic as the news media and others pounced, intent on transforming the memory of the troubled and brilliant singer into nothing more than tabloid fodder. It’s the same process we witnessed after the deaths of Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, and so many others—and yet every loss seems to engender a new and more vulgar band of predators. 

Case in point: Houston’s fellow music superstar and addict in recovery, Tony Bennett. At a pre-Grammys party this weekend, Bennett unabashedly used Houston’s death to promote his own drug-legalization agenda. He asked partygoers to “get our government to legalize drugs, so [people like Whitney] have to get them from a doctor, not just some gangsters.” He also suggested that it was the use of illicit street drugs that killed Houston, Jackson, and Winehouse.

These assumptions are wrong in so many ways. First of all, linking Houston’s death to any drug is pure speculation at this point; while we know she struggled with addiction in the past, we have no idea whether she relapsed recently. Moreover, the exact cause of her death is still under investigation. Second, even if drugs were involved, it’s unlikely that they were illegal; both alcohol and prescription pills were found in Houston’s room. Third, we know that illegal drugs were not involved in the deaths of Jackson or Winehouse, who died from a prescription overdose and alcohol poisoning, respectively.

Bennett went on to propose that in light of Houston’s untimely demise, the U.S. should look towards Amsterdam as a model for successful drug legalization in an attempt to save lives. I know I’m not the only one baffled by this proposition; after all, it’s legal drugs that have become our country’s biggest problem—prescription painkillers now cause more deaths than heroin and cocaine combined. Plus, as we’ve discussed before, a debilitating wave of narco-tourism invaded the Netherlands when they increased the number of coffee shops authorized to sell marijuana. Bennett never mentioned this, nor the fact that the Netherlands are now scaling back those legal locations in an effort to curb drug abuse.

Yet while it was shameful and irresponsible for Bennett to make these blatantly erroneous statements about Amsterdam, Jackson, Winehouse, and Houston, his biggest error was the insensitivity of selfishly pushing this particular political agenda on the very day of Houston’s death, in the very hotel where her body was still being examined. It was an act of callous disregard for the whole, real, and good person Whitney Houston was. “We love her so much,” President Nelson Mandela famously said of Houston, who supported many charitable causes in South Africa. In short, Bennett’s ill-timed call for legalization was not only inappropriate and inaccurate, but cold-hearted as well.

Houston’s tragic death should not be used as a political tool, nor a call for drug legalization—but it should serve as what Jamie Lee Curtis recently called “a call to arms to face addiction and alcoholism head-on.” We as a nation need to change our perception of addiction and the misconception that it’s problem belonging only to two ends of our country’s socio-economic spectrum: poverty and celebrity. In reality, the problem of addiction belongs to all of us.

Comedian Patton Oswalt had the right idea when he urged Lindsay Lohan’s friends via Twitter to “sit her down NOW, post-Whitney, post-Michael, post-Amy. Be hard. You could actually save her.” This is exactly the call to arms that each of us must hear and put forth in our own homes and communities; let’s educate our kids, speak up to our loved ones in trouble, and help struggling individuals get the addiction treatment they need. We can’t simply let more and more souls – famous or not – join Houston, Jackson, and Winehouse as victims of this lethal disorder.

Howard P. Meitiner
President and CEO
Phoenix House

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  • Very well said. You bring up some valid points, and your conclusion is compassionate. And while I agree that legal drugs are the single greatest threat to individual health in this country, I also believe the chain of addiction is begun by attitudes about drugs, legal and illegal, in this country.

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