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Douglas: Drugs

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The Governor devoted his state-of-the-state address entirely to the rising tide of opiate addiction in Vermont and strategies to combat it. I’ll leave to others the task of weighing in on whether that was appropriate, to the exclusion of pressing issues such as a shrinking workforce, rising property taxes, uncertainty in health insurance coverage and access to affordable energy.

But the growing problem of Vermonters, especially young Vermonters, becoming dependent on dangerous and often illegal substances has confronted us for some time. Over the last 2 decades the number of cases of drug and alcohol abuse has risen sharply and there’s been a shift in the type of substances used by those seeking treatment. The number of heroin overdose deaths and hospital admissions related to substance abuse has also climbed rapidly.

A dozen years ago I met the parents of a young girl in Rutland who had died of a drug overdose. Sarah Martin grew up in a respectable family and her death shocked the community. I encountered other families and other communities in our state that experienced similar losses.

That’s why I made it a priority in 2003 to launch the DETER program. It’s an acronym for Drug Education, Treatment, Enforcement and Rehabilitation. We ensured that every middle and high school had a drug counselor; we funded more after-school programs to keep kids healthy and safe. We emphasized treatment for those addicted by enhancing outpatient treatment and aftercare and by opening a new 80-bed inpatient treatment facility. We established 11 new recovery centers around the state. We invested in offender re-entry programs, as many in our corrections system suffer from addiction. It’s no longer acceptable or affordable to simply lock up those who are addicted; we must treat them and ease their transition back into our communities.

We filled 26 vacancies in the State Police and enhanced penalties for those who traffic in or conspire to sell drugs. We created a new undercover State Police unit called HEAT, another acronym, for the Heroin Enforcement Action Team. We enhanced our drug courts and encouraged community involvement. We supported Vermont Kids Against Tobacco and the Governor’s Youth Leadership Conference to work with young Vermonters to recognize and confront the insidious problem of addiction. I’m proud of how our kids are taking this matter seriously. It’s not just government that’s committed to improve the lives of our neighbors: many nonprofit groups, including faith-based organizations, are hard at work.

And, still, there is more we must do. We need a comprehensive approach. And I’m glad we will continue to confront this epidemic.

In doing so, we’re sending powerful messages: we won’t tolerate those who poison Vermonters for profit and, for those who suffer from drug or alcohol abuse, there is hope.

Shortly after launching DETER, I was honored to appoint Pat Martin, Sarah’s dad, to the Vermont Alcohol and Drug Abuse Advisory Council. He’s turned his personal grief into an opportunity to serve. Until the day comes that no more lives are ruined and no more families grieve - we’re all in this together.