Rare U.S. Senate field hearing focuses on Vermont's addiction fight
RUTLAND - Burlington Boys & Girls Club executive director Mary Alice McKenzie and other officials told Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. Peter Welch about the state's multiple fronts in the battle against addiction at a field hearing of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, which Leahy chairs.
Vermont's U.S. Attorney Tristram Coffin, Rutland City Police Chief James Baker, Health Department Commissioner Harry Chen and State Police Col. Tom L'Esperance also testified at the Howe Center hearing, which attracted more than 150 spectators and several local officials.
All five witnesses emphasized how the state weaves together law enforcement and public health services to treat not only crimes but the underlying problems, saying Vermont "can't arrest our way out of the problem."
Leahy commended Rutland for its creative strategies to treating addiction and stopping drug crime. State and local solutions to criminal justice can inform federal policy as well, Leahy said.
"If it works in the state system, we ought to adopt it in the federal system," Leahy said. "Vermonters don't shy from a challenge and they don't hesitate to tell you what's on their mind, and so we've got some innovative programs."
Leahy and Welch listened to all five witnesses, then asked questions that ranged from how to provide youth activities and services to rural teens to Naloxone, an overdose-reversing drug becoming more available to police and the public.
Health Department Commissioner Harry Chen updated the legislators on the state's public health efforts to tackle opiate addiction, which the administration views as a "chronic illness."
Nearly four thousand Vermonters are in treatment for opiate addiction and half are young adults, he said. More are on waitlists.
Chen said 2013 was a milestone for Rutland with the opening of the West Ridge Center for Addiction Recovery, a methadone treatment clinic. That project had in the past met strong opposition.
"We now acknowledge that addiction is a chronic illness like diabetes and heart disease," Chen said.
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