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January 08, 2014

Shumlin Launches Campaign Against "Opiate Crisis"

State of state 1Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted his State of the State address Wednesday to highlighting what he called a "rising tide of drug addiction and drug-related crime" that he said threatens the quality of life in Vermont.

During a 34-minute speech, Shumlin said Vermont is imperiled by opiate addicts who cannot access  treatment and commit crimes to raise money for drugs. The governor proposed steps to bolster treatment for addicts, shift the focus of the court system from punishment to a treatment and slap tougher sentences on out-of-state dealers who bring drugs to Vermont.

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

Shumlin said that since 2000, Vermont has seen a 770 percent increase in treatment for all opiate. Just in the past year, the state registered a 40 percent increase in heroin treatment, Shumlin said.

State-of-the-state speeches often feature a laundry list of priorities for a looming legislative session, but Shumlin yesterday focused almost exclusively on proposals to reduce opiate addiction, which he called a "crisis" on par with the destruction caused by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

Shumlin, who faces re-election in November, offered a few specific policy proposals.

He asked for an additional $1 million to help treatment and recovery centers across the state, including $200,000 to help cut the backlog of addicts who are waiting to get into treatment programs. Shumlin said there are more than 500 addicts waiting for treatment in Central Vermont, the Northeast Kingdom, and Chittenden County.

Additionally, Shumlin said his proposed budget will include an extra $760,000 to help prosecutors conduct assessments of defendants to determine whether they would benefit from treatment and services. The assessments would be performed by an independent third party, paid for by the state and agreed to by prosecutors and defense attorneys.

The goal is to reduce number of addicts who are sent to prison — where it is more costly to care for them — and direct them into treatment programs, Shumlin said.

Such a program is already operating in Chittenden County, where State's Attorney T.J. Donovan and treatment professionals have created a "Rapid Intervention Community Court" that diverts addicts from the court system and into programs designed to help them beat their addictions.  

Shumlin said he modeled much of his proposal yesterday on Donovan's program. However, Shumlin has little formal power to implement the program statewide. Vermont's 14 county state's attorneys are independently elected and are given wide latitude on whether and how to prosecute defendants.

But the governor's proposals yesterday seemed to generate widespread support from all levels of government, including several state's attorneys who were in attendance. Shumlin was joined in a press conference after his speech by a phalanx of prosecutors, police officers, lawmakers, and other key figures, including Attorney General Bill Sorrell and Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Reiber, who in recent speeches and in an interview with Seven Days has warned that the criminal justice system alone cannot solve the drug problem.

State Rep. Bill Lippert, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the governor's campaign and the support it seems to have represent a sea change in how the state is addressing the drug problem.

"Addiction is a mental health issue, and not a law enforcement issue — it's articulating that at the highest levels of the branches of Vermont government," Lippert said. "I think that's profound. There is a fundamental shift that's happening here. This is big."

"We must do for this disease what we do for cancer, diabetes, heart, and other chronic illness: first, aim for prevention, and then eradicate any disease that develops with aggressive treatment," Shumlin said during his speech. "Getting this right is not just a matter of compassion. It is also the right thing to do for our pocketbooks."

But not all of the governor's proposals centered on treatment: Shumlin also asked lawmakers to pass tougher sentences for dealers who bring drugs into Vermont from other states, and for people who carry firearms into homes to commit crimes. (Shumlin did not offer a specific proposal for the length of sentences in his speech.)

During his address, the governor, who is planning to run for re-election in November, highlighted the movie Hungry Heart, a documentary about opiate abuse in St. Albans made by Vermont filmmaker Bess O'Brien. 

O'Brien and several people featured in the film attended the speech and received standing ovations from lawmakers, including doctor Fred Holmes, who was treating more than 80 children for opiate addiction in the St. Albans area before retiring. Shumlin also highligted the case of former University of Vermont student Will Gates, who died of a heroin overdose before he could graduate.

The governor said his office will provide a grant to allow O'Brien and the subjects of her film to visit every high school in Vermont to speak with students. During his address and in a press conference afterward, Shumlin pointed to the example of Dustin Machia, one of Dr. Holmes' patients who started using opiates in the 10th grade, developed a $500-a-day habit and has now been clean for five years. 

At the press conference, Machia said that it's vital to give addicts the chance to bypass waiting lists and get treatment at the moment they are ready. 

"Tomorrow," he said, "could be too late." 

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