Friday, October 31, 2014
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The epidemic we were ignoring before Philip Seymour Hoffman died

It's time for America to recognize there's a heroin crisis underway.

The epidemic we were ignoring before Philip Seymour Hoffman died

The actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead today in his New York City apartment, almost certainly of a drug overdose. Police told reporters that a needle was still sticking in his arm and bags of heroin were found nearby. He was only 46 years old.

As the shock subsided and the tributes poured in, it was difficult to argue with those who called him the best actor of his generation, and impossible to quibble with those who called him the most versatile. From small indie flicks (including, from what I've read, the upcoming Philly-based "God's Pocket, based on a novel by former Daily News scribe Pete Dexter) to blockbusters like the "Hunger Games," Hoffman's on-screen intensity made good movies great and crummy movies watchable. He won one Oscar for "Capote" and surely would have won more.

If he had lived.

It was both heartbreaking and fascinating to watch the reaction on social media as word spread. With such an array of roles, everyone reached for a different Hoffman moment. Some quoted his best lines ("The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you're uncool," from "Almost Famous" -- watch below) or posted videos of his best performances. It was as if everyone wanted a piece of Hoffman -- because the whole was gone.

We can't bring back Philip Seymour Hoffman, but we can do this: Start paying more attention to the scourge of heroin abuse -- which with no fanfare from a national media that's too busy tracking the misdemeanors of Justin Bieber, has become an out-of-control epidemic in parts of America. Here's a remarkable thing that happened four weeks ago, that few of use even heard about:

A governor broke with tradition yesterday and devoted his entire state of the state address to drug addiction.

Peter Shumlin, the governor of Vermont, urged residents to open their eyes to the growing problem in their front yards, rather than leaving it only to law enforcement, medical personnel and addiction treatment providers. Shumlin argued the facts speak for themselves.

In Vermont, since 2000, there has been a 770 percent increase in treatment for all opiates. He stated: “What started as an OxyContin and prescription drug addiction problem in this state has now grown into a full-blown heroin crisis” and — quote — “Last year, we had nearly double the number of deaths in Vermont from heroin overdose as the previous year.”

Overall, heroin deaths surged 45 percent in the United States between 1999 and 2010. It doesn't take a lot of effort to to find recent local news stories about the rising heroin epidemic in South Florida, in New York's Hudson Valley,, or, closer to home, in South Jersey. It took the death of an Academy Award-winning actor to get the nation's attention.

But now that we're here, let's start a real conversation about how to make this epidemic go away. Heroin is not marijuana -- no one's died of a pot overdose, ever -- and it's a good idea to lock up the big-time traffickers, but it's also clear that the mostly-law-enforcement approach is a dismal failure. Drug treatment programs are often the first thing to get cut in a financial crisis, yet capital funds for new prisons are somehow always available. If someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman -- successful, wealthy, beloved, with a wife and three young children -- was not able to beat heroin, how can we help those who are in the throes of poverty and despair? And how hard are we really trying.

Sundlin, the Vermont governor who's devoted a lot of time and study to the heroin crisis, told PBS: "Governors don’t like talking about it because we’re afraid that when we move our policy from law enforcement, and the belief and the fantasy that you can beat this just with law enforcement, and, in fact, have to treat it with treatment and with services that will help folks move from addiction to recovery, that something will go wrong, and that therefore we don’t dare take any risk."

It's time to start taking some risks. It's too late for Philip Seymour Hoffman, but somewhere in America there's another father or mother of three who's struggling with the monster of addiction, and who needs society's help. What are we waiting for.

About this blog
Will Bunch, a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News, blogs about his obsessions, including national and local politics and world affairs, the media, pop music, the Philadelphia Phillies, soccer and other sports, not necessarily in that order.

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