BENNINGTON -- State Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, was on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Tuesday talking to national lawmakers about how Vermont is confronting heroin and opiate abuse.

"We have a problem"

"We admitted we have a problem and are starting to deal with it," Sears said.

The event, held at the Russell Senate Office Building, was sponsored by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, and was hosted by U.S. Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island.

Sears, who is chairman of the Vermont Senate's Judiciary Committee, said the event was attended by a number of U.S. Congress members as well as those in the drug addiction treatment fields. His talk was about how Vermont, while being a small, rural sate, battles the same problems with heroin as do other places in the nation.

The news that Vermont has an opiate addiction problem appeared to surprise a few people in attendance, he said.

Sears told them that the state has taken steps to address the problem through legislation and the expansion of treatment options. "We can't arrest our way out of this problem," he said.

In the past, Sears has talked about bills introduced in the state legislature that increase the penalties for home invasion type crimes, as well as expand the use of "drug courts" which will aim to divert non-violent drug addicts with limited criminal records towards treatment rather than incarceration.

"I think the main thing they took away is we are all trying to do something about it," he said.

Heroin has been a hot topic in Vermont, and in Bennington, this year. Gov. Peter Shumlin made opiate addiction the focus of his State of the State address, while Rutland and Bennington were both featured separately in the New York Times regarding addiction issues. Rolling Stone magazine also did a piece on heroin in Vermont for its April issue.

Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at kwhitcomb@benningtonbanner.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.