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Stats Show Opiate Use Declining, Not Rising, In Vermont

Despite being the singular focus of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s State of the State address outlining Vermont’s heroin and opiate “epidemic,” use of the addictive drugs has actually gone down over the past several years, according to state and federal data.

“In Vermont since 2000, we have seen a more than 770 percent increase in treatment for all opiates,” Shumlin said at his State of the State address. That number reflects a significant increase in the number of individuals in treatment in the state, which in turn reflects a significant increase in the state’s capacity to treat opiate addictions.

The available data for opiate use, regardless of treatment status, is not as dramatic.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health is an annual survey that tracks drug use and health data at both national and state levels. According to that survey’s 2002-2003 information, 5.4 percent of Vermonters reported “nonmedical use of pain relievers” in the past year, a classification that would include Oxycotin and other FDA-approved opioid painkillers. In the survey’s 2010-2011 data, that percentage had fallen slightly to 5.1 percent.

Slight downward trends exist for heroin use in Vermont, though that data is not as readily accessible.

Vermont Department of Health spokesman Robert Stirewalt cited the survey in an email, noting that “less than 1 percent of Vermonters report using heroin in the past year. Past year heroin use in Vermont decreased (although not significantly) from 2009/2010 to 2011/2012.”

Meanwhile, treatment capacity for opiate addictions is expanding in Vermont. From 2002 to 2008, the number of methadone treatment slots in the state went from zero to about 500. In Northwestern Vermont, HowardCenter opened its first medically-assisted treatment clinic – better known as a methadone clinic – in 2002 with 70 patients. As of last week, the non-profit was treating 722 patients across multiple locations, according to Bob Bick, the HowardCenter's director of mental health and substance abuse services.

But Bick said the governor was right to call attention in his speech to the topic, regardless of the statistics, which Bick said only show a portion of the overall “iceberg” of a problem.

“I think what the governor has legitimately focused on is the percentage of the iceberg that is above the waterline, that has suggested that we still have a very significant portion of that iceberg is below the water line,” Bick said.

The growing number of opiate addicted individuals in treatment make up a growing portion of the total population of people in treatment for substance abuse problems in Vermont, but none of the data in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health or the similar state-generated Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows a significant increase in opiate use – heroin or otherwise –in recent years.

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