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Friday, January 10, 2014

Vt. Governor Confronts State’s Opiate Addiction Crisis

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin delivers the State of the State Address at the Statehouse in Montpelier, Vt., on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014. (Andy Duback/AP)

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin delivers the State of the State Address at the Statehouse in Montpelier, Vt., on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014. (Andy Duback/AP)

This week, Vermont’s Governor Peter Shumlin began his annual State of the State Address in the usual fashion — he talked about state’s strong economy, its low unemployment rate, its affordable high-quality healthcare.

But then, his speech took a sudden turn. He started talking about a crisis. “In every corner of our state, heroin and opiate drug addiction threatens us,” he said. (See a transcript of the address here.)

Gov. Shumlin did something that perhaps no other governor has ever done before. He spent the rest of the speech — some 34 minutes — talking about Vermont’s drug addiction problem.

Vermont, like most of New England, has become an epicenter for heroin and prescription opiate trafficking. Since last year, deaths from opiate overdoses have doubled in Vermont, and the number of Vermonters seeking treatment has increased 771 percent since 2000.

Crimes related to opiates has also increased. Now, 80 percent of Vermont’s inmates are locked up for drug-related crimes.

Gov. Shumlin joins Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti to discuss the problem.

Interview Highlights: Gov. Peter Shumlin

On the impact of heroin addiction in Vermont

“As a governor who was born and raised in this state, what I cherish most about Vermont is our quality of life. This heroin epidemic threatens all of that. We’ve got to figure out a more honest way to deal with this as the healthcare challenge that it is, a public health issue, as opposed thinking we can solve this by simply locking folks up.”

“I don’t think there’s a Vermonter who can’t tell you of a family member or a friend or a neighbor or a friend of a neighbor – because we’re a small state, and we know each other’s business – where some family member hasn’t dealt with this challenge.”

On Vermont’s approach to the problem

“I’ve come up with a pretty aggressive plan to find ways to clear our waiting lists, because we’ve got huge waiting lists of folks who are ready for treatment, but who were not given treatment to, and I’m saying, ‘Hey, this is no different than kidney disease or cancer or any other disease.’ We’ve got to get treatment to these folks; that’s our best hope. And then, taking steps both with law enforcement and, most importantly, with preventative measures, to ensure we’re getting the folks what they need.”

“I don’t think there are very many states that are building treatment centers in every major community, which is what I’m going to do, make sure there aren’t waiting lists for treatment, and then make sure there’s a judicial process that gives you the option, when you’re really down low, when you’re bottomed out, to face the challenge and go into treatment and avoid prosecution if you do well.”

On heroin addiction nationwide

“You know, we make the decisions we make as a nation, but let’s not deny that when we approved FDA approved drugs like OxyContin, and then we passed them out with great exuberance, we are setting folks up to become addicted to opiates.”

“The challenge that we’re facing as a nation now is that heroin is cheaper than FDA-approved OxyContin and other drugs on the street. Bottom line is, this is a disease. It’s a disease that, once you get hooked, is a lifetime battle. And so, as a governor, I’ve got to look at this and say, ‘Okay, this is real.’ Politicians don’t really want to talk about it, but if we don’t, we’re not going to deal with it.”

Guest

Transcript

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

This week, Vermont's Democratic governor, Peter Shumlin, began his annual State of the State Address in the usual fashion. He talked about state's strong economy, its low unemployment rate. He mentioned health care, and thanked members of his government. But then his speech took a sudden turn. He started talking about a crisis.

GOVERNOR PETER SHUMLIN: The crisis that I'm talking about is the rising tide of drug addiction and drug-related crimes that are spreading across Vermont. In every corner of our state, heroin and opiate drug addiction threatens us.

CHAKRABARTI: Governor Shumlin did something that perhaps no other governor has ever done. He spent his entire State of the State Address talking pointedly and passionately about the depth of the drug addiction problem in Vermont. Governor Shumlin joins us now. Welcome.

, VERMONT: Well, it's great to be with you. Thanks for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: So, first of all, let me ask you: Why'd you do this? You spent over half an hour talking about opiate addiction in Vermont.

, VERMONT: Well, you know, as a governor who was born and raised in the state, what I cherish most about Vermont is our quality life. This heroin epidemic threatens all of that. We've got to figure out a more honest way to deal with this as the health care challenge that it is: a public health issue, as opposed to thinking we can fight it simply by locking folks up.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, describe to us what the opiate addiction problem, the impact that it's had on Vermont. I mean, some of the numbers are pretty staggering. I see that since the year 2000, there's been a more than 700 percent increase in the number of people seeking treatment for opiate addiction there.

, VERMONT: That's right. Like so many other states, we've seen a huge rise in the number of people using opiates. It usually starts with OxyContin and other FDA-approved prescription drugs. Then, as those become more expensive, they move to cheaper heroin. And the challenge that we're facing as a nation now is that heroin is cheaper than FDA-approved OxyContin and other drugs on the street. Bottom line is this is a disease. It's a disease that, once you get hooked, is a lifetime battle.

And so as a governor, I got to look at this and say, OK. It's real. Politicians don't really want to talk about it. But if we don't, we're not going to deal with it. And, you know, I've come up with a pretty aggressive plan to find ways to clear our waiting lists, because we've got a huge waiting list in terms of folks who are ready for treatment, but who we're not giving treatment to. And I'm saying, hey, this is no different than kidney disease or cancer or any other disease. We've got to get treatment to these folks. That's our best hope.

And then taking steps both with law enforcement, but most importantly, with preventative measures, to ensure that we're getting the folks what they need and moving more folks to a livable life as they face a lifetime of challenge dealing with this addiction.

CHAKRABARTI: You mentioned the story of a young man named Dustin, who's been clean now for five years. But at the height of his addiction - he was raised on his parents' dairy farm in Vermont. But at one point in time, he was spending $3,500 a week on his opiate addiction, $500 a day.

, VERMONT: And I could tell you this story hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times. But here's a kid who grew up in a very supportive, hardworking dairy farm. As you know, we're a big farm state. So friends offered him OxyContin. He went for it. He became an addict, hard and fast, very quickly. And he moved from a $100-a-week challenge, very quickly to $500 a day. And, you know, he did what addicts do. He did everything he could to support his habit. He even stole $20,000 worth of farm equipment from his own parents.

You know, his story is that when he finally got ready for treatment, his mom called. And they called my folks and said, hey, I've got someone that needs treatment. And they said, is he suicidal? She said, no, he's not suicidal. He's addicted. They said, well, listen. We've got such a long waiting list. We can only take those who are suicidal. Sorry. So you know what the mom did? She went to the other phone, calls some other provider - also on the state - she says, my son is suicidal. He got help.

My point is, I don't think there are very many states that are building treatment centers in every major community, which is what I'm going to do, make sure that there aren't waiting lists for treatment, and then have a judicial process that gives you the option when you're really down low, when you're bottomed out, to face the challenge and go into treatment and avoid prosecution if you do well.

The other piece is the prevention piece, and that's much tougher. There's no national model to figure that one out. But what I'm going to be doing is bringing in the smartest minds we have in the state. We have some great stuff happening. The police chief in Rutland's doing an extraordinary work, the police chief and the mayor there. The mayor up in Burlington and his chief are doing some great work.

They're literally knocking on doors in areas of the state where we think we have challenges in their cities and bringing people out, talking to them and trying to get them into treatment before they hit the crisis. So we're going to do some pretty innovative stuff up here. And I'm convinced that we can maintain Vermont's quality of life, maintain our safety, maintain our security because I'm going to help lead the charge to bring everybody together on a bipartisan basis to stop denying that we got this challenge and face up to it.

This is a disease that will undermine not only Vermont's quality of life, but America's quality of life if we don't figure out how to move the question from locking them up, doing more busts and finding more folks to throw into prison to treating this as the disease that it is and helping them get into recovery.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, as governor, though, you get to propose a budget, do you not?

, VERMONT: Yes.

CHAKRABARTI: So are you going to propose this specific change in the budget to shift funds to treatment and away from prisons, for example?

, VERMONT: Yeah. Now I can't actually shift it away from prisons until I don't have the demand in the prisons. But we're going to get third-party assessments to our prosecutors and to our judges immediately. So they'll have a document that says, listen, this individual is either an addict that we should be disappointed in, mad at perhaps, but not scared of. So if you're someone that we're scared of, you're going to prison.

You know, if you're going to go out and kill people and all the rest, you're going to prison. But if you're the bigger group, frankly, who is the folks who are addicted, have a health challenge, we're going to put them in treatment. And if they do that successfully, they'll never go through the corrections system.

CHAKRABARTI: Finally, Governor Shumlin, do you know, personally anyone who's struggled with opiate addiction?

, VERMONT: Absolutely. I don't think there's a Vermonter who can't tell you of a family member or a friend or a neighbor or a friend of a neighbor - because we're a small state and we know each other's business - where some family member hasn't dealt with this challenge. And, you know, we make the decisions we make as a nation. But let's not deny that when we approve FDA-approved drugs like OxyContin and then we pass them out with great exuberance, we are setting folks up to become addicted to opiates.

CHAKRABARTI: Peter Shumlin is governor of the state of Vermont. Governor Shumlin, thanks so much for joining us today.

, VERMONT: Thanks so much for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: And you heard what Governor Shumlin said. Are you one of those family members who's been touched by drug addiction or even suffered it yourself? What do you make of what he said? Your reactions, send them to us at hereandnow.org. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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