Shumlin takes Vt drug message to DC
By Neal P. Goswami
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | June 20,2014
MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin on Thursday shared Vermont’s approach to dealing with an opiate and heroin addiction crisis with officials and experts from across the country during the White House’s Summit on Heroin and Prescription Drugs.
Shumlin, who spoke at the summit after Attorney General Eric Holder and Michael Botticelli, acting director of national drug control policy, touted Vermont’s proactive approach that emphasizes treatment and seeing the issue as a public health crisis rather than a criminal justice one.
“We lose over 100 Americans a day to this addiction,” he said at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C. “Think about that for a moment. Imagine if we were losing 100 Americans a day to untreated heart disease … or to terrorism. One hundred a day. Imagine what we’d be doing.”
The country will not be able to curb opiate addiction until it is treated like other diseases, he said. When loved ones are afflicted with cancer, families “throw the book at them.”
“We try to keep them on this Earth,” the governor said. “We hug them and love them. This disease (opiate addiction) is different. Let’s be honest about this. When someone suffers from opiate addiction, heroin addiction, Oxycontin addiction, I would argue that we don’t have the same reaction. We’ve got to stop that. These are our children. These are our neighbors. These are our community members. They can recover.”
The summit featured two panels: one on prevention, intervention and treatment; and another on overdose and infectious disease prevention.
Vermont was cast into the national spotlight in January when Shumlin devoted almost his entire State of the State address to “a full-blown heroin crisis” in Vermont. It defied the bucolic image associated with the Green Mountain State, and stories soon appeared in The New York Times and Rolling Stone and on cable news programs.
But it also helped focus the attention of policymakers on the issue. This week alone, a statewide forum was held Monday in Montpelier, followed by a meeting of New England governors Tuesday. The governors agreed to adopt stronger cross-border monitoring of prescription opiates.
Shumlin, speaking at the Washington summit Thursday, said he chose to highlight opiate and heroin addiction in his speech after Vermonters, “often looking shameful about sharing this with me,” continued to tell him of addicted family members.
“I just started listening, and really the stories that I was hearing from people across Vermont — suddenly a light when off in my head,” Shumlin said. “I said, ‘You know, this is something that nobody wants to talk about. This is a disease that we all tend to discriminate against, and this is an issue where if leaders who are elected don’t lead, at least in the case of Vermont, we will lose the quality of life that we so cherish as a state.’”
The governor talked about the dangers of opiates approved by the Food and Drug Administration. He said drugs like Oxycontin led to addiction in Vermont, but when pills were reformulated to keep them from being crushed and snorted or injected, addicts turned to the cheaper and more lethal heroin.
As demand for heroin in Vermont grew, so did the price. Shumlin said a bag of heroin in Vermont costs $20 to $30, significantly higher than markets just south of the state.
“Forget your hearts for a minute and just do the math: $4 to $5 to $6 a bag three to four hours south of us on an interstate highway,” Shumlin said. “There’s a huge economic incentive to get this junk into my state, and it’s happening.”
He called for more treatment and a statewide system of diverting low-level criminal offenders into treatment rather than the judicial system. The Legislature responded, and Shumlin signed legislation into law Tuesday that looks to help addicts when they bottom out.
“What we’re saying in Vermont is we’re going to give our prosecutors, with state-supported dollars, the ability to — immediately, when you’re busted — to have a third-party assessment,” he said.
Those committed to treatment will be provided with wraparound services to help them succeed with their recovery, Shumlin told the summit.
“If you succeed you will never be charged, you will never have a criminal record, and we will get you back, as the attorney general said, as a productive member of our community,” Shumlin said. “It’s just smart. It’s common sense.”
He also spoke Thursday of the state’s hub-and-spoke system of treatment facilities, with treatment hubs in larger communities fed by spokes in smaller communities. Shumlin said the system, helped by federal dollars, is a success.
“It’s working. We believe that by next year we will not have waiting lists for people who are ready to be treated,” Shumlin said.
“The federal government has been incredibly helpful in that,” he said. “In a little, small, rural state, millions of dollars of help. That’s critical. Let’s keep on that.”
Finally, Shumlin said the stigma of addiction must be eradicated so that treatment facilities can be created and successful.
“You know what my biggest challenge to setting up treatment facilities is?” Shumlin asked. “Fear. Folks who say, ‘Not in my backyard.’ Now, it’s interesting that we all kind of avert our eyes to addiction in our front yards and then we fear and fight treatment in our backyards.”
He added, “Listen, America, we’ve got to get over that. Folks who are in treatment are no more dangerous than folks who are in treatment for other diseases. All the evidence suggests that.”
In a phone interview after the summit, Shumlin said he is encouraged that Holder and other White House officials understand that federal support is needed by states.
“It’s clear that there’s a growing consensus that we’re in this together and the White House is aware that without federal funding this is a tough battle to win,” he said.
He said Vermont and other states must also be careful “not to expect the impossible.”
“We’re not going to end opiate addiction in Vermont,” Shumlin said. “What we can do is a much better job of treating the disease and moving more people back into a productive life.”