Matthew Perry: He'll be there for you

Until his appearance on 'Newsnight' this week, few of us were aware that 'Friends' actor Matthew Perry has a new role as a campaigner on addiction issues

His jokes weren't as funny as Chandler Bing's, but there was no denying Matthew Perry's passion as he clashed with writer Peter Hitchens in a debate over drug policy on Monday's edition of Newsnight. The 44-year-old actor spent 10 years under the spotlight as one of the stars of Friends and his struggles with alcoholism and prescription drug addiction have been well documented. But what few knew until more recently was that, since turning his own life around, Perry has used his influence to try to help others suffering similar problems.

Perry visited the UK – and the Newsnight studio – to put the case for so-called "drug courts", where former addicts act as lay magistrates to deal with the crimes of non-violent substance abusers, offering treatment for their addiction instead of a prison term. The idea, which has been taken up by the Obama administration in America, was recently put forward for the UK by Policy Exchange, the think-tank that invited Perry to speak shortly before his appearance on the BBC.

Arguing for the efficacy of the system, Perry said: "I know that they work. People that go through drug court have a 55 per cent less chance of ever seeing handcuffs again."

But the debate became heated when Hitchens, a Mail on Sunday columnist whose most recent book is The War We Never Fought: The British Establishment's Surrender to Drugs, responded by claiming that addiction was a "fantasy", and that drug abuse should be treated not as a disease, but as a crime, pure and simple. "The policy which you so smugly and loftily advocate," he told Perry, "has led to disaster in Western countries for decades."

As a case study for addiction, Perry suggested, Hitchens need look no further than the actor himself. The actor was born in the US but raised in Canada, where his problems with alcohol began when he was only 13 and drank an entire bottle of wine at a party. Years later, as his fame peaked on Friends so, too, did his addiction: some days, he swallowed 30 Vicodin pills, a narcotic, chased with two pints of vodka.

During his time on the sitcom, he was admitted twice to rehab and once to hospital suffering from pancreatitis caused by his alcohol intake. "I had a big problem with alcohol and pills and I couldn't stop," he told People magazine earlier this year. "Eventually, things got so bad that I couldn't hide it and then everybody knew."

His problems, Perry has said, were exacerbated by his success, and fuelled by his $1m-per-episode (£550,000) pay cheques. But now that money is being put to better use.

The actor has turned his former home in Malibu into a sober living facility, Perry House, where men attempting to overcome alcoholism and addiction can participate in a 12-step residential programme.

In October 2012, Perry appeared before Congress to testify in favour of local drug courts. In May this year, he was honoured at the White House for his support of President Obama's drug policy, which includes the rehabilitation-focused courts. He was presented with the Champion of Recovery award by Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, who praised him for "giving a voice to the millions of Americans in recovery".

Since Friends, Perry's acting career has been somewhat less successful than his campaigning, though he has acquitted himself admirably in short-lived series such as Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Go On.

Last week, it was announced that he is to co-write and star in a sitcom version of the classic play and film The Odd Couple. Nonetheless, he told People: "When I die, I'd like Friends to be listed behind helping people."

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