• The end of denial
    January 09,2014

    Gov. Peter Shumlin appealed to the head and the heart in devoting virtually all of his State of the State address on Wednesday to the crisis of drug addiction in Vermont.

    He began with a series of startling statistics that gave substance to the growing unease many Vermonters have felt about continuing reports of rising crime and addiction. They are worth repeating in detail.

    There has been an increase of 770 percent in treatment for opiates since 2000.

    There has been an increase of 250 percent in people receiving treatment for heroin addiction since 2000. The increase since last year was 40 percent. (The high numbers are no doubt due in part to the wider availability of treatment.)

    The number of federal indictments against heroin dealers in 2013 was double the number of the previous two years combined. That was five times the number in 2010.

    Last year there were twice as many deaths from heroin overdoses than the previous year.

    Addicts are good at denial, Shumlin said. It is no longer acceptable for Vermonters to be in denial about the problem of opiate addiction. Denial might find expression in the attempt to downplay the problem, as in, “There have always been addicts. It might be a little worse now.”

    These numbers suggest it is more than a little worse.

    Shumlin offered other numbers that describe the scope of the problem. He said more than $2 million worth of heroin and other opiates are being brought into Vermont each week. One reason is that a dealer can buy a bag of heroin for $6 in New York or another city and sell it for $30 in Vermont. A fivefold profit is a powerful economic incentive.

    He described some of the consequences with other numbers. He said 80 percent of our prison inmates were either addicted to drugs or in prison on drug-related charges. He said it cost $1,120 a week to hold an inmate in prison, but it cost $123 a week to provide treatment for a heroin addict at a state-funded treatment center. We spend more on prisons than on the state’s colleges and university.

    These facts make a powerful case for action. But Shumlin also appealed to the heart. In the gallery at the House chamber was filmmaker Bess O’Brien, whose latest documentary, “The Hungry Heart,” describes the work of a pediatrician in St. Albans with young people struggling with their addictions. At Shumlin’s bidding, legislators and onlookers gave O’Brien warm applause.

    But she was not alone. Also in the gallery was the St. Albans physician, Dr. Fred Holmes. Also there was one of the young addicts whom he had helped, Dustin Machia, and his mother. Machia has been clean for five years. All received heartfelt, prolonged applause.

    The message was that the drug problem is not about numbers. It is about people struggling with an illness. And Shumlin’s fundamental message was that the state needed to address the drug problem as a crisis in public health.

    It is unusual but not unprecedented for a governor to use his State of the State address to focus on a single issue. Health care, education, jobs — all have had their day. Shumlin alluded to other issues awaiting action, which he will address in more detail in his budget address next week. These include, of course, health care and the budget.

    But by spotlighting the problem of drugs, Shumlin has done the state a service. He was drawing upon much good work done around the state in recent years by law enforcement, the judiciary, health care providers and others to bring a comprehensive, compassionate and strong response to the problem. He is seeking now to expand upon that work to address a statewide crisis.

    His proposals touch on the importance of treatment, of a discerning judiciary, of strong enforcement against dealers, and of prevention. He also talked about the funding of these new initiatives, which, if anything, seemed too modest for the task. These will be the topic of a later editorial.

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