WASHINGTON -- Philip Seymour Hoffman's death from an apparent heroin overdose has, at least for a brief moment, focused the political world's attention on issues of drug addiction and substance abuse treatment. For lawmakers from Vermont, that focus is long overdue.
Since well before the actor's death, Vermont has been grappling with how to approach an ongoing epidemic of heroin abuse. Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) devoted his entire State of the State address last month to Vermont's "full-blown heroin crisis." Vice magazine recently published an illuminating piece about the drug abuse that is ravaging the state. In 2012, 914 people were treated for heroin abuse in Vermont, up from 654 the year before, according to health department statistics. Recently, three users died after taking fentanyl, a prescription painkiller that is sometimes sold as heroin and is up to 50 times more powerful.
And so, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) took to the floor to pay tribute to Hoffman this past week, he timed it such that Vermont's senior senator, Patrick Leahy (D), would be there to witness his remarks. Leahy, in turn, said he would use his post as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold hearings on the issue.
The other senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders (I), spoke to high school students about the abuse of heroin and other drugs just days before Shumlin's speech. Sanders told The Huffington Post that Hoffman's death should serve as a jumping off point for a broader discussion about the dangers of addiction. The country, he added ominously, is "unprepared for the epidemic."
"One of the problems in Vermont is you have waiting lists of people who want to break the habit, want to break their addiction, and we can't treat them when they want to do it," Sanders said. "So you tell them, come back in six months. Well, in six months, they might not be prepared to take that step. I will tell you that in Vermont it is a very, very serious problem.
His full remarks on Hoffman and on the heroin epidemic are below:
As an actor, I really, really liked him. I think he was a great actor and it is a real tragedy for his family and for all of us. If there's a silver lining in the death of a brilliant, young actor, it maybe just raises this issue to a higher level. And that is, we have a real, real, real crisis with opiates and with heroin. I, myself, a couple weeks ago spoke to about a thousand kids in an area of the state -- a high school in northern Vermont -- a community which I think in the last couple of months has lost two people due to overdoses, and it was just a very emotional meeting. I and the US Attorney were there and talking with the kids.
So I think the issues there are several-fold. The first and fundamental issue is, why is it that so many people, not just young people, gravitate toward opiates and toward heroin? Why? Why? What's going on in our culture, where people know that taking powerful drugs -- you gotta know it's not good for you, and you gotta know that when you do these things they become addictive, and certainly most people know that heroin is a killer. Once you're into heroin, it's either jail or death. And, why? Second of all is, we are unprepared for the epidemic, in terms of our mental health capacity to treat people who need treatment. And one of the problems in Vermont is you have waiting lists of people who want to break the habit, want to break their addiction, and we can't treat them when they want to do it. So you tell them, come back in six months. Well, in six months, they might not be prepared to take that step. I will tell you that in Vermont it is a very, very serious problem.