THE BLOG

America's Greatest Threat

05/05/2014 03:28 pm ET | Updated Jul 05, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman was a very great actor. He was also a heroin addict.

February 2 of this year Mr. Hoffman was found dead on the bathroom floor of his New York apartment.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman, winner of the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2005, died with a heroin syringe in his left arm.

The New York medical examiner's office ruled his death was caused by an "acute mixed drug intoxication, including heroin, cocaine, benzodiazepines and amphetamine."

Until the moment of his tragic death, the drug epidemic in America was off the front pages, did not lead the national news, was not part of any ongoing conversation, save in law enforcement circles, where the danger is both understood and its exponential growth, feared.

Before Mr. Hoffman's destructive act, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin became the first governor in U.S. history to limit a State of the State address to one subject, that one subject -- heroin.

The governor's decision to focus on one issue was driven by the knowledge that heroin addiction in Vermont had grown 770 percent in one year!

However, national media paid little attention to the governor's speech, save for PBS's News Hour, where the governor was interviewed by Judy Woodruff, who seemed, however, dubious of the governor's claim, that America has a drug epidemic.

It took Mr. Hoffman's shocking death to move the story from inside the nation's newspapers to page one; from local television to network news.

Like most reasonably well informed citizens I was aware drug addiction is a problem, but until personally confronted by it, I was ignorant of how pervasive it has become.

But over breakfast with our district attorney, Bonnie Dumanis, my understanding of the crisis was greatly expanded.

Obviously, the district attorney knows the number of arrests, prosecutions, and incarcerations resulting from drug addiction, but she also see the human side, the lives lost and families destroyed.

I asked the district attorney if she gives speeches about the drug problem. Of course, she said, many, "but since it doesn't fit easily into sound bites, media largely ignores my warnings."

From that breakfast I determined, as president of The City Club of San Diego and The Denver Forum, that both organizations would focus programs on drug addiction, beginning here with Ms. Dumanis and Police Chief Bill Lansdowne; followed in Denver with U.S. Attorney John Walsh and District Attorney Mitch Morrissey.

What we learned in both cities was alarming, especially the rise of heroin usage, which has spread its life destroying powers coast to coast and border to border; that heroin has reached into every segment and strata of American society.

But it took Mr. Hoffman's death for national media to awaken to heroin's insidious reach, as within days of his passing both The New York Times and Washington Post published stories about heroin overdose deaths in small town USA; where everyone may know your name but not your addiction.

The Times story wasn't about someone famous, but a young woman of 21, Alysa Ivy, found dead on the floor of a cheap motel in her small northern Wisconsin town of Hudson; having died, like Phillip Hoffman, from a heroin overdose

Her mother, Karen Hale, The Times said, shocked by her daughter's death,

is not ready to dismantle Ms. Ivy's bedroom, where an uncapped red lipstick sits on the dresser and a teddy bear on the duvet. The jumble of belongings both comforts and unsettles her -- colorful bras, bangle bracelets and childhood artwork; court summonses; a 12-step bible; and a Hawaiian lei, bloodstained, that her daughter used as a tourniquet for shooting heroin into her veins.

The Washington Post, to its very great credit, continues, weeks after Mr. Hoffman's death, publishing stories about deaths from drug overdoses, most of which are stories about teenagers and heroin's powers to destroy lives and kill victims.

The peril to teenagers is particularly acute, since there exists with young people a code of silence about drug usage among peers; a code so corrupting in its moral obtuseness that parents are the last to know -- and often by that time it's too late.

I had a conversation recently with an East Coast friend. He and his wife are greatly accomplished, as are their children.

Their grandchildren are just into their teen years, which gives my friend great pause. He told me he is "terrified" what might happen, given peer group pressure to conform -- the pressure to consume alcohol and experiment with drugs.

But the problem is even more acute post high school.

Friday and Saturday nights on most college campuses have become for school administrators the two most worrisome nights of the week, when alcohol and drug usage is rampant. But among college and university's leaders, only the president of Dartmouth has had the courage to speak out; perhaps driven by Dartmouth's student applications having declined by 14 percent, part of which he believes is attributable to what occurs at the onset of the weekend.

But while the drug epidemic continues to grow, continues to ensnare young lives, the nation's attention to the problem is in no wise commensurate with its dangers.

Save Peter Shumlin. Save Bonnie Dumanis. Save John Walsh. Save Mitch Morrissey.

And, save for Massachusetts Governor Derval Patrick, who declared a "public health emergency", as deaths from heroin overdoses in the Commonwealth have reached an appalling level since the first of the year.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2010 there were 38,329 overdose deaths in the United States, a number greater than those who died in traffic accidents.

The two governors, Shumlin and Patrick, get it, but most governors are silent, as are most mayors and county executives, but the most deafening silence is from the White House, where President Obama has said nothing.

Mark this down, and someone please tell President Obama, America's gravest threat comes, not from terrorists, but from the drug and heroin epidemic killing our youth and destroying our families, and unless openly confronted will impact this nation in ways beyond the imaginings of any terrorists group.

If you think I'm being overly dramatic about the nature of this problem, I would respectfully suggest you are inadequately informed about the opiates danger -- and you need to be informed.

Going forward, the question must be asked: What kind of a nation will we become if our future "leaders" are mostly from a drug culture that thinks recreational drugs are okay; that being bombed on Friday and Saturday nights, is okay; that because everyone does it, I can do it?

What we know is many people are ignorant of the drug epidemic, while others who know are indifferent to it; until that is, it comes into their families, at which point everything changes.

Finally, if you are a parent, hold your children close. Know their friends and their friends' parents. Assume nothing. Let me repeat that -- assume nothing.

Trust me on this. I know.