MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin and legislative leaders say they plan to further address opiate addiction in the state during the upcoming legislative session by focusing on the treatment options for addicts.
Shumlin told the Senate Democratic caucus this week that he will present his own ideas to lawmakers early next year on how to stem the rise of addiction among Vermonters.
“I promise I will come to you early in the session with things that I think will help,” Shumlin said. “I cannot think of an issue where the stakes are higher and where we are losing so badly so quickly.”
The Legislature and the administration have taken an aggressive path at curbing drug abuse in recent years. Penalties for using a gun in the drug trade and for carrying large amounts of drugs have been enhanced. Greater restrictions were placed on over-the-counter medications that can be turned into street drugs.
The flashiest measure to combat opiate and heroin abuse has been the creation of an inter-agency drug and gang task force headed by the Vermont State Police. Long-term undercover operations have resulted in large-scale arrest sweeps in Bennington, Springfield and St. Albans, resulting in dozens of arrests in each operation.
Sen. Dick Sears, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee from Bennington County, said law enforcement efforts have helped break up supply lines. But now the state must focus on treating addicts successfully.
“We’ve got to recognize that we’ve got a problem and one of the ways you reduce the demand is through treatment,” he said.
The state is implementing a treatment system signed into law last year that features regional hubs with corresponding “spokes” into smaller communities. Some of the hubs are still not online, and the spokes have yet to follow, Sears said.
“It has taken a lot longer than any of us thought,” he said.
Democratic leaders, speaking this week on “City Room,” a public access TV show hosted by Times Argus Editor Steven Pappas, said they plan to shift from law enforcement efforts to treatment.
“There’s a lot of towns out there (whose) crime, and especially property crimes, have gone up as a result of the addiction issue,” said Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell.
“The way to deal with this is as an illness,” he said. “It’s not something where we just want to throw everyone in jail. That’s not going to accomplish anything.”
House Speaker Shap Smith added: “Definitely, part of the solution has to be law enforcement-related, interdiction. But as (Campbell) also noted, we can’t arrest our way out of it. The people who are addicted really have an illness and are sick, so we have to be creative in making sure that we get the resources to them to get them treatment.”
Treatment solutions have been hampered by some communities’ unwillingness to accept treatment facilities, Campbell said.
“One of the major problems is that there are towns, of course — the NIMBY — where they do not want to have any type of rehab facility within their community,” he said.
He was referring to residents whose objection to certain facilities and projects is: “not in my backyard.”
“But I think the towns really understand this is not going to go away without this type of assistance, and all of us are part of this,” Campbell said. “We all have to be in, or we’re not going to even make a dent.”
Shumlin, also speaking this week on “City Room,” said his annual budget address to the Legislature next month will include his ideas on how to address the problem.
“I am really concerned about the opiate epidemic in Vermont, and I think it takes gubernatorial leadership to invite solutions and present solutions, and that’s going to be some part of my address and certainly some part of what we talk about in this legislative session.”
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