• State of the State address targets Vt. drug problem
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     | January 09,2014
     
    Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo

    Gov. Peter Shumlin delivers his State of the State address to a joint session of the legislature on Wednesday.

    MONTPELIER — Citing a “full-blown heroin crisis” and dramatic increases in Vermonters addicted to opiates, Gov. Peter Shumlin used the entirety of his State of the State address Wednesday to focus on treating and curbing the abuse of prescription and illicit drugs.

    Shumlin, a Democrat in his second two-year term, declared the state of Vermont to be strong and promised to address additional topics in his budget address next week.

    But Wednesday was devoted to drug abuse, and Shumlin called on the state to abandon the law-and-order tactics used by Vermont and other states in the past and instead begin treating addiction as an illness that needs prevention and treatment.

    “We must address it as a public health crisis, providing treatment and support, rather than simply doling out punishment, claiming victory and moving on to the next conviction,” Shumlin said.

    The governor provided staggering statistics on “the rising tide of drug addiction and drug-related crime.”

    For instance, the state has seen a 770 percent increase in the demand for treatment of opiate addictions since 2000, according to the governor. That includes a 250 percent increase in the demand for treatment of heroin. The greatest increase — 40 percent — has occurred in the past two years, Shumlin said.

    “In every corner of our state, heroin and opiate drug addiction threatens us,” he said. “It threatens the safety that has always blessed our state. It is a crisis bubbling just beneath the surface that may be invisible to many, but it’s already highly visible to law enforcement, medical personnel, social service and addiction treatment providers and far too many Vermont families.”

    This rapid rise in addicts is driving crime across the state and destroying lives, Shumlin said. In 2013, the state saw twice as many federal indictments against heroin dealers than the prior two years, he said, and last year saw nearly double the number of deaths from heroin overdoses than the previous year.

    The state’s Drug Task Force, Shumlin told a capacity crowd inside the House chamber, has estimated that more than $2 million worth of heroin and other opiates are trafficked into Vermont every week. Vermont’s proximity to major cities, including Boston and New York, is providing dealers with a lucrative trade, he said.

    “Dealers can make a lot of money from addicts in Vermont. A $6 bag of heroin in New York City can go for up to $30 here. So think about that — a $6 purchase could sell for five times as much just a few hours up the interstate.”

    Currently, nearly 80 percent of Vermont’s incarcerated people are addicted to drugs or imprisoned as a result of their addiction. Addiction is draining the state’s coffers as a week in prison costs more than $1,100 compared to $123 for a week of treatment at a state-funded center, Shumlin said.

    The governor laid out several proposals to address the issue, but first and foremost among them is boosting treatment capacity. He asked local communities, many of whom have strongly opposed local treatment facilities in the past, to accept them now for the greater good.

    “The time has come for us to stop quietly averting our eyes from the growing heroin addiction in our front yards while we fear and fight treatment facilities in our back yard,” Shumlin said.

    He called on lawmakers to approve $200,000 in immediate new spending in the budget adjustment to help eliminate waiting lists at treatment centers. The cash infusion will help the centers add staff and reduce backlogs, he said.

    In addition, Shumlin said he will ask for more spending for statewide recovery centers, as well as funding for substance abuse and mental health treatment services for those on state assistance, in his 2015 budget proposal. That will represent more than $1 million in new funding on top of $8 million in ongoing spending, he said.

    The state must also do a better job of “convincing drug users who wind up in our criminal justice system that getting help is a better path than addiction,” according to Shumlin.

    But users “are the best deniers and the best liars you will ever meet,” he said, making that a difficult task. Because the judicial system can take weeks or months to resolve a case, addicts often have plenty of time “to settle back into old habits.”

    So, Shumlin said he is seeking $760,000 for evidence-based assessments of defendants to help state’s attorneys determine which defendants should qualify for immediate treatment. And he called for the statewide expansion — paid by the state — of a program launched by Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan that provides for rapid intervention and diversion to treatment rather than prosecution.

    The governor is seeking some traditional law-and-order efforts in the state’s battle against opiates. Some offenders deserve stiffer criminal penalties — high-volume dealers “and those who break into our homes with weapons in hand to rob us to feed their habits.”

    Shumlin asked lawmakers to approve statutory changes enhancing penalties for those crimes.

    Furthermore, Shumlin pledged to add substance-abuse prevention to the challenges considered by the Governor’s Criminal Justice Cabinet.

    The 34-minute speech highlighted filmmaker Bess O’Brien’s “The Hungry Heart,” which showcases the effort of Dr. Fred Holmes to help many in the Northeast Kingdom kick their habits. Dustin Machia, who is featured in the film and is beating his own addiction because of Holmes’ help, was also on hand in the gallery. All three received standing ovations after being identified by Shumlin.

    The governor said the state must do a better job of educating Vermont’s youths and providing education and support in their early years to prevent addiction later in life. Shumlin said he will provide grants for every high school in the state to host O’Brien and people featured in her movie.

    Shumlin asked the Senate to send him to follow the House’s lead and pass a universal pre-kindergarten bill he said will help set Vermont students on the right path early.

    Vermont Supreme Court Justice Paul Reiber, speaking at a post-State of the State address press conference hosted by Shumlin, said opiates are “ravaging our state.” He said the forum was not one in which he would typically speak, and was clear that he was not supporting or advocating for any specific proposals or policies.

    Instead, Reiber aimed to highlight the judiciary’s shortcomings in addressing the issue alone.

    “The criminal justice system by itself is not solving the problem of addiction-related crime,” he said. “Vermonters should know that our best efforts to address the problem of addiction and related criminal behavior through the punish and deter model have not been successful. Instead, the problem is rapidly growing.”

    The press conference featured a wall of officials standing behind Shumlin, including House Speaker Shap Smith, Attorney General William Sorrell, the chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees and the head of Vermont State Police, Col. Thomas L’Esperance, among others.

    Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott said Wednesday he agrees “wholeheartedly” with Shumlin that it is a critical issue in Vermont that requires solutions. But Scott said Shumlin said nothing about creating jobs and opportunities to help prevent more Vermonters from becoming addicts.

    “I’m concerned that there was no mention of a plan or strategy on that front,” Scott said.

    House Minority Leader Don Turner said the Republican caucus can support the governor’s efforts to address opiate addiction.

    “We were happy that the governor has decided to focus some energy on this issue,” Turner said. “It is a very serious problem and it is getting worse.”

    However, Turner said he believes the funding Shumlin has called for “is not an accurate amount for what it’s really going to cost.”

    And, like Scott, Turner said he was disappointed the governor did not address economic development, property tax reform or health care.

    “Our concern is more of what we didn’t hear,” Turner said. “This is the State of the State address and this was essentially a one-issue speech.”

    neal.goswami@timesargus.com

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