Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a bill Tuesday that was a fitting capstone to his efforts focusing attention on the problem of drug addiction in Vermont. Earlier in the day, he had met four of the five other New England governors to improve coordination among the states in combating abuse of prescription drugs.
Shumlin changed the landscape on the issue of drug abuse in January when he devoted virtually all of his State of the State address to the problem of drug addiction. Soon the national media had picked up on the unusual story line: Even in bucolic Vermont, heroin and other opioids are ruining lives. Questions immediately arose. Was it as bad as all of that? Was Shumlin seeking merely to make a splash? Could anything be done?
Soon information from police, prosecutors, health care providers, social workers and others made clear that the problem was bad indeed. Drug overdoses had multiplied. Waiting lists for treatment were growing. Drug-related crime was on the upswing.
Shumlin is not averse to making a splash, of course, and he made a big one with his State of the State address. The New York Times and Rolling Stone were among the national media organizations to focus on Vermont. As word spread about the problems in Vermont, people from away asked frequently whether the stories were true. The answer was yes, but it soon became apparent that Vermont was not alone. That’s why the other New England states have joined Vermont in a coalition to coordinate their monitoring of prescription drugs.
In fact, rural regions across the country are combating a plague of abuse. We have heard of pill mills in Florida and profligate prescription writing in Kansas. In highlighting the problem, Vermont assumed a leadership role, drawing unflattering attention to itself because of the problem, but shining a light on the way ahead by taking action.
The problem of drug addiction is a daunting one because addiction is connected with a list of social ills so long that it might be cause for despair. They include: poverty and lack of opportunity; a struggling education system; family breakdown; overreliance on medication; an impoverished culture that leaves young people with inadequate guidance and support; lack of respect for law and social mores. Addressing any one of these problems is difficult; as they converge to create the conditions giving rise to addiction, the job becomes even more daunting. And beyond these pathologies, we know that drugs have the power to ensnare excellent, well-educated people from solid, loving families, underscoring the reality that addiction is a health care problem as much as anything else.
But hopelessness and passivity are not a strategy. Nor has the so-called war on drugs been an effective solution. The new campaign against addiction has gained credibility because law enforcement officials have been the leading voices in asserting that law enforcement alone cannot solve the problem. Rutland’s Project VISION has been a communitywide effort focusing on neighborhood improvement, law enforcement, drug treatment and the whole range of remedies.
The bill Shumlin signed builds on a successful program in Chittenden County allowing some defendants accused of drug-related crimes to choose treatment instead of criminal prosecution. The bill also stiffens penalties for some drug dealers. The idea is to grab addicts when they are at their most vulnerable — after an arrest — and when they are most likely to see the wisdom of getting free of drugs. The bill also adds money to expand treatment options so that those choosing treatment are not prevented from following up because of long waiting lists.
Meanwhile, the five governors who met Tuesday in Massachusetts hope to improve their capacity to monitor prescription drugs and limit their diversion and abuse. All say the proliferation of prescription drugs has been behind the new wave of heroin abuse.
The problem of drug abuse, like the litany of other problems to which it is connected, will not be solved easily. The campaign will benefit from attention on all fronts, at the regional, state and local level. As with problems of poverty, education and other social challenges, we must be in it for the long haul.
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