Neal P. Goswami / Staff Photo
Gov. Peter Shumlin signs bills designed to fight the drug war by switching the focus from punishment to treatment.
MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a package of bills and executive orders Tuesday aimed at curbing the opiate and heroin addiction problem plaguing Vermont.
The second-term Democrat launched the legislative session in January by devoting his entire State of the State Address to “a full-blown heroin crisis” in the state. He called for treating the scourge of addiction as a public health crisis rather than a criminal justice matter and laid out proposals to improve treatment.
The marquee signing Tuesday at the State House was S.295, “the centerpiece of the policy that we laid out in the State of the State,” Shumlin said.
“We added millions of dollars in funding to ensure that anyone who is ready for treatment receives treatment,” he said. “That’s incredibly important. There are more people who want treatment than we can treat.”
The law provides assessment tools to courts and prosecutors and provides funding for county prosecutors to offer pretrial screening and treatment programs to suspects before they are arraigned, when they are considered most likely to be willing to address their addiction.
The risk assessment tools are also intended to help judges and prosecutors gather more information about defendants when trying to determine if bail is warranted. The law includes $760,000 to hire personnel to monitor offenders’ compliance with the program.
The law also creates stronger penalties for those charged with bringing more than 1 gram of heroin into the state to sell it. And a burglary that involves a weapon or threatening a home occupant will now be considered an aggravating factor, allowing judges to impose stiffer sentences.
The law will “put Vermont on the cutting edge of ensuring that we as a family understand that opiate addiction threatens our quality of life,” Shumlin said.
“It threatens everything that Vermonters cherish about communities, neighborhoods, taking care of each other and ensuring that there aren’t threats to our quality of life,” he said.
Shumlin signed the bill surrounded by law enforcement officials and lawmakers. Several, including Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan, whose pilot program is the basis for the statewide effort, said Shumlin’s focus can help turn the tide.
“I think Gov. Shumlin did something very rare for a public official,” Donovan said. “He was able, by virtue of giving one speech, to change the debate about how we view drug addiction. He was able to change the debate not only in the state of Vermont, but frankly, changed the debate in this country.”
Bobby Sand, a senior policy and legal advisor for the Department of Public Safety, said Shumlin’s speech marks the beginning of a new direction in combatting addiction.
It has helped Vermonters understand that the problem has taken hold in the state, he said, and helps “shine a bright, clean, antiseptic light on this topic that lets us all see with perfect clarity that these are not ‘other people’ — these are our people, this is us.”
Sand, the former state’s attorney in Windsor County, said, “For more than 40 years in the name of the war on drugs we have arrested and convicted and punished people who use drugs, believing that they are ‘other people.’ When people reflect on drug policy changes for the early part of this century, Gov. Shumlin’s January 2014 State of the State Address will stand as a watershed moment because what he did was blow the lid off of the myth that these are ‘other people.’”
Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, helped craft the bill. He is serving as the co-chairman of a special legislative panel looking into child abuse following the deaths of two children in recent months.
He said Tuesday the panel is hearing how heroin and opiate abuse are leading to child abuse and neglect.
“Nothing could be more timely than having this bill move forward right now,” Sears said.
Prosecutors are not required to use the assessment tools, but the state will cover the costs when they do. Bram Kranichfeld, executive director of the Vermont Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs’ Association, said all 14 state’s attorneys plan to participate.
“Every prosecutor in the state wants to get started on these programs as soon as possible,” he said.
Shumlin also signed into law S.308, which regulates dealers of precious metals. He said buying and selling precious metals and jewelry is “tied in to the challenges with opiates that we’re facing.”
“When people need to support their habit they will do almost anything to support that habit,” the governor said. “They will rob you. They rob almost anything to raise the money to pay for their addiction.”
The law creates a certification process for precious metal dealers, creates a 10-day delay before purchased items can be sold, and caps cash transactions at $25.
Retiring Rep. Thomas Koch, R/D-Barre Town, led the effort to pass the law. He said the new regulations should help curb burglaries perpetrated by addicts.
“They break into homes, they steal jewelry, they steal silverware, they take it to a dealer and under present law the dealers can send it out of state and have it melted down within 24 hours and somebody’s family heirloom is gone forever,” Koch said.
“Overall, what this bill really attempts to do is reduce the benefit that people can get by committing burglaries,” he said.
Two executive orders were also signed. One creates the Governor’s Law Enforcement Officer Coordinating Council, which is designed to provide the governor with direct information from law enforcement on the state’s challenge with opiates.
The second creates the Governor’s Criminal Justice and Substance Abuse Council, which enhances the Criminal Justice Cabinet to include substance abuse issues.
Shumlin’s focus on addiction led to nationwide attention for Vermont. Both the New York Times and Rolling Stone magazine ran articles about the state’s challenge. Some criticized Shumlin for inviting such attention.
But the governor said he is “more resolved than ever” to tackle the problem and shift away from a criminal justice approach and embrace treatment.
“I know that when we began this conversation in January there were some who felt we shouldn’t be having it,” he said. “We have too many good Vermonters who are getting addicted first to FDA-approved drugs, then often moving to heroin, which is a cheaper and more lethal source, and we’re losing them.”
Shumlin added, “When we lose them we lose a piece of Vermont because they need to break the law, they need to rob, they do things in Vermont that really compromises our quality of life.”
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