President Obama Delivers State Of The Union Address At U.S. Capitol

There was bad news on my doorstep. Deep inside the morning paper was a dispatch that blew my mind. Out in western Pennsylvania, state officials were warning the citizenry about the quality of the local heroin supply.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, heroin was a bad problem in big cities such as New York. The drug became so widely used here that our rock bands discussed it in the same matter-of-fact way their California brethren dealt with surfing or driving dragsters. “When everyone’s going to your house, they shoot up in your room,” went one New York Dolls ditty. “Most of them are beautiful, but so obsessed with gloom.”

But now, the narcotic is killing people out in the heartland. Twenty-two people – 22! – had died in a matter of days after taking a “dangerous batch of heroin” in Pittsburgh and other areas in western Pennsylvania, according to reports in Tuesday’s newspapers. Sold in small bags bearing catchy brand names – such as Income Tax, Bud Ice and Theraflu – the heroin apparently had been mixed with a potent painkiller called fentanyl, causing addicts who generally knew their tolerance levels to overdose.

“Those who are in possession of this potent formula are in danger of losing their lives,” William Peduto, the mayor of Pittsburgh, said in a public warning last weekend. “It will kill you. The danger cannot be overstated.”

The drug disaster in Pennsylvania is only the tip of a national iceberg. Heroin is gaining popularity in parts of the country where it was difficult to buy in the past. Addiction to the drug has become such a big problem in pastoral locales such as Vermont – where even the biggest city has fewer than 50,000 people – that Peter Shumlin, its Democratic governor, devoted his entire state of the state address this month to the issue.

The new heroin users in small towns tend to be people who got hooked on prescription painkillers such as OxyContin during an era when doctors somehow came to think that it was a good idea to hand out more of this stuff to folks who were hurting. As law enforcement authorities cracked down on the abuse of these legally manufactured medications, addicts have been switching to the street equivalent – heroin.

“What started as an OxyContin and prescription-drug addiction problem in Vermont has now grown into a full-blown heroin crisis,” Mr Shumlin said. “We have seen an over 250 per cent increase in people receiving heroin treatment here in Vermont since 2000, with the greatest percentage increase, nearly 40 per cent, in just the past year.”

But the heroin epidemic is getting little attention nationally. The news of the Pennsylvania deaths hit the streets here on the same day that President Barack Obama reported on the state of our union to Congress. But neither Mr Obama nor the four Republicans who issued responses for their party mentioned heroin.

Nor do I expect they will. Problems such as drug addiction just don’t fit the format of our national political conversation. As anyone who watched Mr Obama and his foes on Tuesday saw, we wage political battle in this country by anecdote. Politicians identify some altogether worthy but suffering soul and build their case around him or her.

Mr Obama employed the strategy to great effect in his address to Congress, delivering heartfelt shout-outs to more than a half-dozen admirable Americans carefully positioned in the gallery of the House of Representatives.

Friend and foe agreed that the highlight of Mr Obama’s speech came when he paid tribute to Cory Remsburg, an army ranger badly wounded by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. Mr Remsburg slowly rose to his feet and gave a thumbs-up to his commander-in-chief, who responded in kind, prompting applause so sustained that the din might have lasted until the dawn’s early light if Mr Obama hadn’t resumed speaking.

It’s hard to see how a US president could work similar magic on behalf of people who arouse mixed feelings – and that’s what heroin addicts are almost guaranteed to do. They aren’t cancer victims or factory workers whose jobs were moved to some third world hellhole. They brought their troubles on themselves.

A living, breathing, looking-for-a-fix junkie – furtive and sweaty – would have no place on a feel-good night like the one we all watched on Tuesday. The sad fact of the matter is that you just can’t help people in this country who aren’t ready for prime time.

gary.silverman@ft.com

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