America’s drug epidemic: Our greatest threat

The drug epidemic sweeping our country is someone else’s problem until it becomes your problem, as it has become my family’s problem.

But most families so affected are silent because they’re ashamed and they wish to keep their family’s shame private. But silence is not an option, because until we have a public discussion of our drug epidemic, up close and personal, there’s no chance in hell we will ever get past it.

Drug addiction is an illness, a sickness, a disease, and as cancer should not shame one’s family; neither should drug addiction. (This is underscored by “The Antidote,” an article in The New Yorker by Ian Frazier, which takes an in-depth look at what has happened in the New York borough of Staten Island.)

You may be thinking, “A drug epidemic? How have I missed that?”

You missed it because you haven’t been paying attention. As I was not paying attention until confronted by it in our family with a grandson who became a drug addict — a grandson I love more than I love my own life.

The shock of recognition came hard, and nothing about it has been pleasant. Nothing. It has been a terrible ordeal for all of us — his mother, grandmother, uncles, family and friends — but most of all for him, attempting to understand his addiction and how he can get past it.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted his entire State of the State speech in January to the drug epidemic sweeping beautiful Vermont. Never before in U.S. history has a governor devoted an entire speech to one subject. Gov. Shumlin did that because in one year heroin addiction rose by 770 percent in his state — 770 percent is not a misprint!

Yet, it wasn’t until Oscar-winning actor Phillip Hoffman was found dead in the bathroom of his apartment in New York City, a heroin syringe sticking out of his arm, did the epidemic make the evening news that night and the front pages of the world’s newspapers the next day.

Until then, the epidemic was not a news story.

When I asked San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis if she ever gave speeches about drugs she answered, “All the time, but media pays no attention because it doesn’t fit conveniently into a sound bite.”

After the news of Hoffman’s shocking death, there was such a rush of stories in, for instance, the Boston Globe, of young people dead from heroin overdoses, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick had no alternative but to declare a state health emergency, and the state’s congressional delegation moved dramatically to convey its alarm, especially Sen. Ed Markey (I will come back to this).

Other newspaper, including the New York Times and Washington Post “discovered” the story and, to their credit, ran a series of articles of family tragedies resulting from drug addiction in Wisconsin and Virginia, knowing it was a pinprick on a monster.

But it is a story all law enforcement officers in America know, as they must deal with the consequences of our epidemic every day. And they know incarceration is not the answer.

Once I understood the vast reach of our epidemic, I immediately resolved to do all within my abilities to confront it, and to ask of others a similar commitment — as I ask it now of you — to know the issue, stay close to your families and if you’re a parent, to know your children’s habits and friends, and take nothing for granted, and if you notice a dramatic change in moods, be very alarmed.

Thus, the City Club, in sponsorship with La Jolla Country Day School, held our first program on our drug epidemic in February featuring District Attorney Dumanis and La Mesa Police Captain David Bond.

Subsequently, The Denver Forum, The City Club’s sister organization in Colorado, held a similar program with U.S. Attorney John Walsh and Denver’s DA, Mitch Morrissey. We made certain that high school students were present, because drugs are present in our high schools in ways beyond imagining.

More recently, in September, The City Club, in partnership with First United Methodist Church of San Diego, Temple Emanu-El, and the YWCA, held another drug program, this time with U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore and Shelley Zimmerman, San Diego’s new police chief.

Knowing that law enforcement alone can’t solve our epidemic, Dr. Greg LaDue, who heads the family life counseling center at First United Methodist, and Scott Silverman, author of “Tell Me No. I Dare You!” and himself a recovering alcoholic and drug addict now 29 years sober, spoke of the need for rehabilitation and wide public support for such programs.

It was stunning to me when Silverman asked the audience, “How many of you have drug problems in your families?” At least 90 percent of the audience raised their hands — including the U.S. Attorney, sheriff, police chief, the YWCA’s Heather Finlay, Rabbi Marty Lawson of Temple Emanu-El and the Rev. Craig Brown, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church.

If 90 percent of an audience of 130 people have faced or are facing drug problems in their families, I dare you, in the spirit of Scott Silverman, tell me this is not a national epidemic.

And yet, the mayor of San Diego hasn’t been heard on our epidemic. The governor of California hasn’t been heard. California’s two U.S. senators haven’t been heard, which is why the response of the Massachusetts congressional delegation so impressed me. They weren’t waiting to be told we have a crisis; they know the crisis is upon us.

But, the hard truth is, vast numbers of public officials in America have been silent on our drug epidemic. Most shocking of all is the silence of the president of the United States.

I simply don’t get Obama’s silence especially because the niece of Vice President Joe Biden, Caroline Biden, has had a series of drug and alcohol addiction issues that have found their way into New York newspapers.

How serious are her addictions? Serious enough for her to have become, as many drug addicts do, delusional as to cause; in Caroline Biden’s case, blaming “Uncle Joe, because he’s the vice president,” reports the New York Post.

When I asked Dumanis how one tells when a drug addict is lying, she said, “When they move their lips.” That response is not simply a prosecutors’ throwaway line, but is consistent with everything I’ve been told by experts, most of whom devote their professional careers to the healing and recovery of addicts.

Indeed, in this journey of discovery, I’ve learned the behavior pattern of drug addicts is remarkably similar, no matter how varied the other circumstances of their lives.

I titled this, “America’s drug epidemic: Our greatest threat.” Do I mean, thereby, to suggest our drug epidemic is our nation’s “greatest threat?” I intend precisely that, because it is what I believe.

It is not a belief based upon our family’s crisis — I am not that narrow-minded — but because I believe drug addiction is so widespread, affecting millions of families from rural to urban America, from public schools to our universities, from Main Street to Wall Street, that the long-term national interest of our country is put at grave risk.

What Al-Qaida or the Taliban or Isis cannot do drug addiction can and will bring our country down, absent a massive movement, public and private to confront the monster and kill it!

I beg of you – join the fight!

George Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader.

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