The United States is in the grip of an opioid epidemic that is claiming 78 American lives every day due to overdoses of drugs such as heroin and oxycodone, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And controversial journalist Geraldo Rivera says that we should blame the crisis on marijuana prohibition.

In a 2014 article for Latino FOX News, Rivera - who turns 73 today - used the opioid-related death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman as a jumping point for a blistering commentary on the War on Drugs.

"With scores of suburban kids dying of heroin overdoses in recent months in relatively upscale communities like Ocean County, New Jersey, it was just a matter of time before a high-profile celebrity like 46-year-old, Oscar-winning actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman joined the ranks of previous celebrity junkies like Lenny Bruce, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Heath Ledger in a body bag."

Rivera considers Hoffman a casualty of the drug war because the American justice system's decision to lump marijuana and heroin together as equally dangerous substances distracted law enforcers from cracking down on the real threat to society. Moreover, he argues that the legal equivalence of opioids and cannabis led police to focus on busting marijuana consumers - mainly ethnic minorities - and overlooking heroin.

"Because of those Draconian and dumb laws that did not adequately distinguish between pot and smack, law enforcement was diluted. All drug abuse was treated equally, and the ax fell heaviest on black and brown kids who were less interested in heroin...and more interested in pot.

"Over the ensuing decades," he wrote, "uncounted tens of thousands of mostly minority pot smokers were busted with catastrophic consequences for their futures in terms of city jobs or public housing or college admissions. With that misguided focus on the easy to catch potheads, heroin made its insidious comeback."

To solve the problem, he suggests two things: treat drug addiction as a disease instead of a crime, and stop persecuting marijuana smokers.

"Time to grow up America; addiction is a disease. Bring it out of the closet of shame and punishment. Everybody has tried marijuana; even your mom and dad. President Obama says pot is less dangerous than alcohol. It is certainly less dangerous than prescription meds or heroin for God's sake. The War on Drugs is an ongoing tragedy and a tragic waste."

Rivera spoke from experience

The article wasn't the first time that Rivera waded into the controversial topic of cannabis. In 1974, he smoked marijuana under medical supervision to discuss its effects firsthand. That sort of reporting isn't groundbreaking by today's standards, but it was arguably a risky career move during the early years of the War on Drugs.

Here's a clip from that experiment.

h/t NPR

Banner image: Geraldo Rivera says police resources were needlessly dedicated to enforcing marijuana prohibition, when law enforcement should have been cracking down on the illegal heroin market instead. (a katz / Shutterstock.com)