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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Shumlin Says Opiate Addiction Is A Public Health Crisis

Gov. Peter Shumlin says heroin and addiction to opium-based drugs has grown into a full-blown crisis in the state.

To highlight the importance of this issue, the governor devoted his entire State of the State address Wednesday to this single topic. Shumlin says Vermont’s growing heroin and opiate crisis will threaten the future of the state unless steps are taken now. 

Shumlin said in his speech that the number of people seeking heroin treatment in Vermont has grown 250 percent since 2000 and it's up 40 percent in the last year. He said the first step in dealing with this problem is to acknowledge its existence.

The governor said the state needs to adopt a new approach to drug abuse because it won’t go away by throwing more people in jail.

“We must bolster our current approach to addiction with more common sense,” said Shumlin. “We must address it as a public health crisis, providing treatment and support, rather than simply doling out punishment, claiming victory, and moving onto our next conviction.”

Shumlin said at last 500 people are currently on a waiting list to enter treatment programs and he wants the Legislature to allocate $200,000 to immediately expand existing programs.

“Right now, we have hundreds of Vermonters who are addicted and are ready to accept help but who are condemned to waiting because we still do not have the capacity to treat the demand,” he said. “That’s the truth.”

Part of the governor’s plan also includes a new initiative that would offer people convicted of heroin possession an opportunity to avoid going to jail if they participate in a treatment program.

“It can take weeks or months to wind your way through our court system for arrest to conviction leaving the addict time to settle back in to old habits,” he said. “So I want to give our prosecutors and judges the resources needed to strike immediately.”

In recent years, some communities have been reluctant to site new treatment facilities in their towns. Shumlin asked local officials to be part of the statewide solution.

“But the time has come for us to stop quietly averting our eyes from the growing heroin addiction in our front yards while we fear and fight treatment facilities in our back yards,” Shumlin said.

While most of the governor’s plan deals with treatment and prevention efforts, he also wants to impose tougher penalties for people who are arrested selling heroin.

“That will help ensure that high volume dealers who bring drugs into our state to prey upon Vermonters in pursuit of profits will suffer the consequences,” said Shumlin.

The governor’s proposal will now be reviewed by both the House and Senate Judiciary committees.