MONTPELIER -- Gov. Peter Shumlin's State of the State speech highlighting a growing problem of the abuse of opium-based drugs that is driving crime, wrecking lives, tearing apart families and costing the state tens of millions of dollars focused on a problem being faced across the country.
In asking the Legislature to appropriate money for treatment programs and pass laws to encourage treatment rather than imposing stiffer jail sentences in certain cases, he emphasized Vermont's shift away from asking law enforcement to solve the drug challenge.
He called it a "full-blown heroin crisis": Since 2000, treatment for opiate abuse in Vermont is up almost eight times; in the past year, heroin treatment is up 40 percent. The number of federal indictments of heroin dealers last year was up five times over 2010. And last year, the number of heroin overdose deaths nearly doubled over 2012.
Shumlin said Thursday that drug abuse isn't an issue many officials or family members of addicts want to talk about.
"The hope is that I can use my voice to speak the truth about a challenge that threatens to undermine the best quality of life of any state in the country and proactively confront it," Shumlin said. "The only difference between my approach and the other states is that they don't want to talk about it. It's not that they don't have the same problem."
On Wednesday, Ohio Gov. John Kasich warned parents and other adults of the dangers of prescription pain pills and heroin while visiting two schools in the southwestern part of the state. In Ohio, drug overdoses have surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of accidental death.
Police in Vermont say the heroin problem grew out of the abuse of prescription drugs, with people turning to heroin because it's less expensive and in many cases easier to get than prescription drugs.
Statistics from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration rank Vermont in the top categories for the abuse of non-medical use of pain relievers and illicit drug use other than marijuana -- which includes heroin -- for people ages 18 to 25.
Vermont ranks second per capita, behind Maine, in the number of people seeking treatment. Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen said the treatment statistic, which he considered good news because it shows the problem is being addressed, and the governor's speech represent a "paradigm shift" away from a law-enforcement centered approach to dealing with drug abuse.
Shumlin called on the Legislature to appropriate money to reduce waiting lists for addicts to get treatment and expand 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.
While he emphasized treatment and called for ways to keep people from becoming addicted in the first place, Shumlin called for tougher sentences for drug traffickers and addicts who commit violent crimes while seeking money for drugs.
During his speech on Wednesday, Shumlin introduced Dustin Machia, who grew up on a dairy farm in northwestern Vermont. When he was in the 10th grade, friends offered him a prescription painkiller. He's been clean for five years, but, speaking during a news conference with the governor after the speech, Machia described himself as "an addict, always will be."
Five years ago Machia, now 25 and from Swanton, said he and his mother went to a local doctor, a big step on the road to recovery. He used the spotlight of standing near the governor to make it possible for addicts to get treatment as soon as they want it.
"If I'm an addict today and something major happens and I decided it's time to go, find a bed at a rehab somewhere and I'm ready to go right now I need to go right now because if I don't go right now and I wait until tomorrow, tomorrow could be too late, I could be dead," he said.