Two drug-related bills approved by the House on Friday have the potential to make a positive impact on the substance abuse problem in many Vermont communities. H.522 sets forth several initiatives to slow or stop the abuse of opiates and methamphetamine; H.65 will try to encourage the reporting of drug overdoses by giving someone who calls emergency responders about an overdose immunity from some drug-related charges.
Both of these bills mark a shift in the way we are thinking about drug abuse. For decades, the general approach to combating drugs was to take a hard line. Although Vermont was never wholeheartedly a party to this methodology, across the country the strategy for combating drug abuse included strict mandatory minimum sentences and a no tolerance approach. This so-called “War on Drugs” was a response to what was perceived nationally as a crisis of law enforcement, coming from the rise of ever-more-powerful drugs like heroin and meth, and associated violent crime.
In recent years, many states that had imposed harsh penalties for drug crimes have begun to reconsider this approach. The data and anecdotal evidence suggest that a ‘lock-em-up’ mentality only serves to prolong the underlying problem. More and more, states are employing a public health approach to drug-related problems, with greater success.
The appointment of State’s Attorney Robert Sand to set up drunk-driving courts across Vermont in January was one part of this approach — a specific system to deal with the specific and pernicious problem of repeat DUI offenders. The approach to illegal drugs needs similar thinking, and the House has set us on that path.
As local authorities, law enforcement and prosecutors have found, a hard line on substance abuse only confronts some of the symptoms and does not get to the root of drug-related crime. Prison bars do not lessen the physical need of an addict for a drug; an arrest is not an intervention and police officers are not addiction counselors. Law enforcement has a key role in combating drug abuse, but their role is one part of the whole.
Vermont has been experiencing its own drug-related crisis in recent years, with a web of problems stemming from the use and abuse of opioid drugs — everything from powerful prescription painkillers to heroin, and more recently methamphetamine.
Much of the crime in Vermont is drug-related. Burglaries, pharmacy holdups, prostitution, domestic abuse and many other, petty crimes all trace back to addiction in one way or another. Thus far the state has not really acted comprehensively against drugs. In the last legislative session lawmakers strengthened restrictions on the sale of copper piping. Thefts of copper from homes, worksites and businesses had reached near-epidemic proportions. The copper was sold as scrap by thieves, with the proceeds going to pay for drugs. This was a necessary bill to strengthen the hand of law enforcement. But it was not a bill that would attack the cause of the crime.
The pair of bills approved by the House on Friday are a step towards fighting the cause, and signal the addition of a compassionate, public health approach to the fight. H.65 would help reduce the number of deaths from opioid overdose — which numbered 50 in 2012, according to the Vermont Health Department.
H.522 is more comprehensive, and includes parts of other bills that have been incorporated into this whole. To help track and identify people abusing the opioid prescribing system, the bill would increase tracking of painkiller prescription patterns, and establish an advisory board to build evidence-based standards for pain management — which is the legitimate purpose of painkilling opioids — and addiction screening that will help doctors and health care providers. A provision would also set up tracking for the legal over-the-counter drugs that can be used to create methamphetamine — which has started appearing in Vermont.
The bill would also work to prevent overdoses by allowing doctors or even family members of addicts to administer opioid antagonists — basically, an overdose antidote — to an addict. And it includes some practical teeth, imposing harsher penalties on the use of an abandoned property to sell drugs, and provisions to pursue landlords who knowingly allow drug sales on their property. These last provisions are key for local authorities attempting to root out known drug houses in their cities or towns.
These bills are a great step. Instead of using the law as a cudgel, we use the law as a lever to push offenders towards a long-term solution to their problem.