RUTLAND (AP) - Vermont's heroin and opioid abuse problems received national attention Monday at U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy's Judiciary Committee field hearing in Rutland where witnesses discussed both reassuring signs of progress and areas in need of improvement.
Leahy began by applauding communities like Rutland for working on solutions for the drug crisis and also highlighted the unity in the state for fighting the tide of addiction.
"I've never seen in my lifetime, in this state, a law enforcement community more fully committed to prevention and treatment efforts as we have right now," Leahy said. "And I think we Vermonters ought to be proud of that."
Rutland police chief James Baker spoke about a local program called Project VISION that supporters say integrates public safety, prevention and treatment efforts.
VISION, or Viable Initiatives & Solutions through Involvement of Neighborhoods, coordinates efforts for crime, safety, substance abuse issues and neighborhoods and housing, Baker said. It uses data and connects police to city, state and county agencies so they can target certain hotspots of drug activity and better allocate resources.
But another witness, Mary Alice McKenzie, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Burlington, said there was more to be focused on, such as the interests of children.
McKenzie said that children in her region, as young as 13 years old, have been facing drug pedaling and solicitation.
"We had children telling us they were afraid to walk home at night, afraid to walk across the park ," McKenzie said. "They told us of being followed, harassed and assaulted by those under the influence of drugs."
Young teens told her organization they were offered money to sell or carry drugs and some say they were offered money for sex with drug dealers, according to McKenzie.
In McKenzie's view, the hardest tasks were ahead, since there would need to be sustained efforts to keep a safe environment in the state.
U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, a Democrat, who also questioned witnesses at the hearing, recently worked on another pressing topic for Vermonters fighting drug crime. Welch sent a letter with the Northern New England's House delegation to the Food and Drug Administration voicing concern about its approval of Zohydro, a powerful new painkiller which is ten times more potent than Vicodin.
"It is FDA's mandate to protect the public health," the delegation wrote in the letter. "As northern New England faces one of the worst public health threats of our time, we urge you to use your authority to ensure that this highly abusable form of Zohydro does not further complicate the crisis that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies as a 'growing epidemic.'"
Welch said they have not received a response from the FDA, but he will continue to pursue the issue. If the FDA does not reconsider its approval of the drug, Welch said he and others in the House would pursue legislative action.