Matthew Perry, Drug Abuse, and Prohibition
Last Saturday, October 28, the actor Matthew Perry died in his hot tub. Best known for playing Chandler Bing on the sitcom Friends, since the show ended he’d become almost as famous as a celebrity addict who very publicly struggled with substance abuse, recovery, and relapse. His untimely death offers an opportunity to think about both drug use and drug prohibition, as he took both legal and illegal substances throughout his life.
Does his life support continuing the federal drug war—a broad-based, overlapping series of policies that has given rise to high levels of incarceration over the past half-century, a $3.2 billion annual budget for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and record levels of overdose deaths?
Perry’s best-selling 2022 memoir, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, is a searing account of his long and difficult relationship with currently banned substances the government calls “illicit drugs,” legal pharmaceuticals, and alcohol. In it, he discussed his near-death experience when his colon burst due to taking too many opioids, which have a constipating effect. (At one point, he says he was downing up to 55 Vicodins a day.) He was put into a medically induced coma, given just a 2 percent chance of survival, and spent months using a colostomy bag. He says he had his first drink at 14 and started drinking every day at age 18. He was clean and sober for only one season of Friends, which ran for a decade between 1994 and 2004. By his count, he made 15 trips to rehab, had 14 stomach surgeries, and told The New York Times that he’d “probably spent $9 million or something trying to get sober.“
The cause of death for the 54-year-old is not known and an inquest and full toxicology report could take months to complete. Reportedly, the only drugs found in his house were prescription medicines for anxiety, depression, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, (an artifact of his heavy smoking). But whether Perry’s death was directly caused by drugs, there is no question his long history of substance abuse hastened it. Bodies just can’t take the sort of punishment he gave his. Perry intuited this and noted in an interview promoting his book that he wanted to be remembered more for helping people get straight than for playing the sarcastic Chandler Bing. “When I die,” he said, “as far as my so-called accomplishments go, it would be nice if Friends were listed far behind the things I did to try to help other people.”
Given his personal history, it’s not surprising that he was no fan of legalizing drugs. Rather, he supported drug courts and forcible treatment, as he made clear in a famous-at-the-time dust-up with British conservative Peter Hitchens. After Hitchens challenged whether addiction is a disease in the way that cancer or diabetes is, Perry responded by saying that denying the disease model of addiction was “as ludicrous as saying that Peter Pan was real.” He continued: “I’m a drug addict. My life is, ‘If I have a drink, I can’t stop.’ And so it would be following your ideology that I’m choosing to do that.”
Yet while Perry’s definition of an addict who has no volition
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