MONTPELIER -- Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin urged the Legislature on Wednesday to pass laws to help counteract what he says is a full-blown state crisis caused by addiction to heroin and other opium-based drugs.
Shumlin, during his State of the State speech at the Montpelier Statehouse, called for increased treatment, law enforcement and education programs designed to keep people from becoming addicted to drugs. He rattled off a series of statistics showing how the drugs are working their way into the fabric of Vermont society.
Since 2000, the number of people seeking treatment for opiate addiction has greatly increased, with heroin addiction up 250 percent. The number of federal prosecutions of heroin dealers is up sharply the last few years, and last year the number of people to die of heroin overdoses was nearly double the total from the year before.
Shumlin said opiate addiction "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 is already highly visible to law enforcement, medical personnel, social service and addiction treatment providers and too many Vermont families," he said.
Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott said he agrees that drug abuse is a critical issue that must be addressed. But he said he is concerned that Shumlin didn't present any plan or strategy for creating the jobs and opportunity that Shumlin says are the best drug prevention.
While Shumlin touched on some of the other issues confronting Vermont, such as creating good jobs, he spent the bulk of his 34-minute speech talking about the drug problem.
Vermont's law enforcement community has been warning of the dangers of drug addiction. There have been a series of high-profile drug sweeps in communities facing drug problems, and prosecutors and police have said they can't solve the problem by themselves.
Immediately after Shumlin finished speaking in the House chamber, he moved to his Statehouse office, where he joined some of the state's mayors, law enforcement leaders and former addicts as they emphasized the importance of the task.
Even state Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Reiber made a rare appearance at the Statehouse. He said that in five years the number of felony cases filed in the state has gone up 7 percent and drug crimes are up 38 percent.
He said that in Franklin County courts have seen huge increases in petitions for children in need of supervision, or CHINS.
"Anecdotally many CHINS filings relate to drug abuse," Reiber said. "Terminations of parental rights to addicted parents are commonplace in our courts today."
To help roll back the drug problem, Shumlin proposed the immediate appropriation of $200,000 to help reduce waiting lists for addicts to get treatment. He's also calling for the Legislature to approve $1 million to be added to existing treatment and recovery programs.
He called for the creation of a system that would allow some addicts to be sent for treatment immediately after their first contacts with law enforcement.
"It's when the blue lights are flashing and cold reality sets in that we have our best shot," he said during his speech.
Shumlin also called for tougher sentences for drug traffickers and addicts who commit violent crimes while seeking money for drugs.
The toughest challenge is keeping people from becoming addicted in the first place, he said. He's going to facilitate a statewide community forum at the Statehouse to share ideas on how to prevent drug abuse. He said he wants to enhance education and said good job opportunities will provide hope that will keep people from becoming addicted.
"This will not happen overnight," Shumlin said. "But these actions represent basic, good government responses to an emergency."