Gov. Peter Shumlin has effectively focused attention on the problem of drug abuse in Vermont, and he has proposed a thoughtful four-part strategy for addressing it. He has been less effective in marshaling together the resources to match the seriousness of the problem as he outlined it.
In his State of the State address on Wednesday the governor offered convincing evidence showing the degree to which addiction to opiates — prescription drugs and heroin — has mushroomed in recent years. Drugs are cheap and available, and hundreds of Vermonters throughout the state have become addicted. Crime related to drugs has also mushroomed, and our prisons are full of people with a drug problem or have been convicted of drug-related crimes.
The first component of Shumlin’s plan is his recognition that addiction is a “health crisis” requiring treatment for its sufferers. He said there are hundreds of Vermonters who “are ready to accept help but who are condemned to waiting because we still do not have the capacity to treat the rising demand.” Northern Vermont has more than 500 addicts on waiting lists, he said.
In response, he asked the Legislature to approve an additional $200,000 to help treatment centers to “staff up” to eliminate the backlog and prepare for the future. For one of his poverty initiatives, he is also seeking funds for substance abuse and mental-health services for the state’s Reach Up program. In all, he is proposing more than $1 million in additional support for treatment and recovery.
Shumlin said we needed to do more than administer “maintenance drugs,” which are the kind of substitute opiates delivered at clinics. Methadone and drugs like it play a crucial role in getting people off heroin, and communities have done well to embrace them. Shumlin urged communities also to embrace the treatment centers that he said are important in getting help “to those who are desperately sick.”
The second component was an important effort to enlist the judiciary and prosecutors to develop programs, such as the drug courts that have been tried in various parts of the state, to guide criminal defendants away from prison and toward treatment. The state would develop “third-party teams” to evaluate defendants and to recommend a response. His budget proposal for the coming year will include $760,000 “to provide objective, evidence-based assessments to help our state’s attorneys and our courts determine who may qualify for immediate treatment and services” and then to hire those who could monitor their recovery.
The third component is tougher law enforcement for the big-time dealers who are flocking to the state. It is important to reserve our jail cells for the predators, not their victims. Shumlin called for tougher sentences for those bringing drugs into Vermont and also for those who use weapons while robbing our homes.
The fourth component of his program is prevention, which he said was the toughest challenge we face. He plans to initiate a statewide conversation, with the help of filmmaker Bess O’Brien, for students in every high school in the state.
The danger of emphasizing a great crisis and describing a great need is that your solutions may not live up to the promise. Shumlin’s emphasis on treatment is welcome, but his proposal to “staff up” to meet a treatment backlog of more than 500 came with a request for $200,000. That sum is not going to pay for a great deal of staffing up. He would use money from other sources, totaling $1 million, but the problem, as he described it, dwarfs the response.
It is hard to disagree that something must be done about the drug problems, and Republicans didn’t try. But they were concerned about the cost of the effort. Facing a $70 million budget shortfall, Shumlin is constrained in what he can propose. But a truly aggressive effort to address the public-health crisis of opiate addiction would be a long-term and costly proposition. Shumlin is stepping valiantly into the breach with one hand tied behind his back. Legislators concerned about the problem may want to look for ways to untie his hand.
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