Drug epidemic requires strong action here and now


Do a Google search on "the rise of heroin abuse in the U.S." and you will get recent article and video results such as: "Heroin Use, Deaths on The Rise in Middle Class America" and "With Rise of Painkiller Abuse, A Closer Look at Heroin" and "Heroin Makes a Comeback, Especially in Small Towns" and "Parents Beware: Heroin Use Rising Among Teens."

Closely related to heroin abuse is the abuse of prescription painkillers. According to the Centers for Disease Control "there is currently a growing, deadly epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse. Nearly three out of four prescription drug overdoses are caused by prescription painkillers -- also called opioid pain relievers. The unprecedented rise in overdose deaths in the U.S. parallels a 300 percent increase since 1999 in the sale of these strong painkillers."

Vermont, despite its pastoral character, has been anything but immune from this epidemic. Residents of the Bennington area are familiar with muscular law-enforcement attempts to deal with this problem, including a large area drug bust a year ago that included an armored personnel carrier and a helicopter hovering around Bennington.

On Wednesday, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted his State of the State message to this crisis -- "the rising tide of drug addiction and drug-related crime spreading across Vermont."

"In every corner of our state, heroin and opiate drug addiction threatens us. It threatens the safety that has always blessed our state," he said. "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."

"It requires all of us to take action before the quality of life that we cherish so much is compromised," he said.

Gov. Shumlin cited some striking facts:

* In Vermont, since 2000, there is a more than 770 percent increase in treatment for all opiates.

* An Oxycontin and prescription drug addiction problem in the state has grown into a heroin crisis. Moreover, there has been more than a 250 percent increase in people receiving heroin treatment in Vermont since 2000, with an increase of nearly 40 percent in the past year.

* In 2013, there were twice as many federal indictments against heroin dealers than in 2012 and 2011, and more than five times as many as in 2010. In 2013, the number of deaths from heroin overdoes in Vermont nearly doubled from the number in 2012.

This is a public health crisis affecting every social class and every region of the state. Viewing it solely as a moral and legal issue ignores the highly addictive nature of these drugs, their ability to debilitate and kill those who use them, and the burden they create on emergency health and treatment services.

Gov. Shumlin proposed a program to gain ground in four areas in the fight against this epidemic.

First, he urged the state to treat addiction as the immediate health crisis it is by increasing treatment statewide. "Right now, we have hundreds of Vermonters who are addicted and are ready to accept help but who are condemned to waiting because we still do not have the capacity to treat the rising demand."

He seeks $200,000 in a budget adjustment to increase treatment in areas of the state with the largest waiting lists, including central Vermont, the Northeast Kingdom, and Chittenden County. He also seeks increased funding for statewide recovery centers and additional funding for substance abuse and mental health treatment for those receiving transitional aid in the Reach Up program for families. In total, the funding would add more than $1 million of additional support for treatment and recovery.

In addition, a new regional treatment center serving St. Johnsbury and Newport just opened, he said. "I also know that treatment facilities have not always been embraced by our local communities," he said. "But the time has come for us to stop quietly averting our eyes from the growing heroin addiction in our front yards, while we fear and fight treatment facilities in our back yards."

The second area is to convince drug users who end up in the criminal justice system "that getting help is a better path than addiction." Research shows that "an addict is most accepting of treatment right after the bust," the governor said. "It's when the blue lights are flashing and cold reality sets in that we have our best shot."

Right now, the judicial system is not well-equipped to do this, but Gov. Shumlin wants to change this to give prosecutors and judges the resources to expedite this process. Part of this effort is legislation co-sponsored by Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, S. 295, which in part would require courts to order pretrial screening for a defendant who may be appropriate for substance abuse treatment.

Third, increased law enforcement efforts would include greater penalties for high-volume dealers bringing drugs into Vermont. The governor also seeks increased sentences for those who enter homes with weapons to in order to steal property with which to fund their habits.

Finally, Gov. Shumlin acknowledges that the best way to fix this problem is to prevent addiction in the first place. "This is the toughest challenge we face; the one without a clear national model or consensus on what works best," he said. "We need Vermont ingenuity; we need all of us thinking big together."

Later in the year, the governor will facilitate a statewide community forum at the State House to share creative ideas about prevention. How much of prevention lies outside what government can affect, such as the post-modern loosening of family and communal ties, is an important but open question. At any rate, what is certain is that dozens of families are being torn apart by addiction, and we think Gov. Shumlin's proposals offer a feasible way to fight this epidemic here and now.

"This is tough stuff. But this is about getting help to those who are desperately sick, and giving hope to those who wish to get better," he said. "Help and hope are what we Vermonters do best."


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