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On Monday, Jan. 13, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) joined us to explain just why he spent his entire state of the state speech this month focused on what he called a crisis "of great concern to [his] state’s future" — the abuse of opiates and heroin. It was a moving and remarkable speech that sent many national observers spinning.
During our hour, Gov. Shumlin also stressed how opiate and heroin addiction is more than just a Vermont problem. You can listen to and read the text of Gov. Shumlin's On Point comments below.
You can also turn to some resources from our guest Caleb Banta-Green, a research scientist and epidemiologist at the Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute at the University of Washington, for abuse counselling, advice and treatment.
"Well really the challenge with this disease is we won't talk about. Families won't talk about it, those obviously who are addicted are scared about talking about it, and politicians certainly don't want to talk about it. And you know, Vermont is a place where we have the most extraordinary quality of life int eh country. We trust each other, we take care of each other, we know each other. And I just felt that it was time for me to use my role as Governor to talk about an issue that does threaten our quality of life and that has solutions if we're willing to have the courage to address them.
"Like so many other states obviously we've seen a huge increase in the number of folks being convicted of dealing heroin and other opiates, we have sen a huge increase in the number of folks who are actually ready for treatment but for whom we don't even have treatment capacity because their numbers are growing so large. And we've seen an increase in crime as a result of people's need to steal their addiction and stealing to do it.
"Really when you see the story of those who are addicted, and you listen to them it breaks your heart. And you know, these are folks, I've got young kids I pointed out in the speech one example of an incredibly brave young man, grew up on his dairy farm, we've got a lot of farms in Vermont. Very loving family, very hard working family. Got offered Oxycontin during exams at 10th grade in high school. Became an addict hard and fast. Turned into a full-blown heroin crisis as it so often does. And you know these are lovable, extraordinary people who have a health care addiction, an addiction that is a health crisis now. And I just felt that when you hear the stories, and you realize that these are our kids, these are our neighbors, you gotta address it.
"If we think that there's not a link between F.D.A- approved opiates like Oxycontin and our heroin challenge in America, you know we're fooling ourselves. The fact of the matter is, over a decade ago we approved Oxycontin, we hand it out with great exuberance, and once you become addicted to that now, the economics are such that the pills, the Oxycontin on the street, is more expensive than heroin on the streets. My economic challenge, forgetting our hearts for a minute and just thinking with our heads, is that you can buy a bag of heroin in cities south for six, five, four bucks a bag and it sells here for $30 bucks a bag. So you can do the math — there's a huge economic incentive for dealers to come into our state and other rural states around us, to sell this stuff at a great profit, get folks hooked and build up a clientele. So, we're fighting a battle that is certainly related to our approval of F.D.A. approved opiates, then leads to cheaper options like heroin once you get addicted. I know we're talking about the most extraordinary beautiful state in the country, but we're kidding ourselves if we think that this isn't happening in all the other 49 states. We're losing the battle, and my point is, we have to come up with a better way of dealing with it. We can't arrest our way out of this challenge. We've got law enforcement here in Vermont that's better than anywhere, extraordinary United States' attorneys, prosecutors and the rest. If we continue to think that we're can just solve this with just law enforcement alone, we're gonna lose the battle.
"Tom, it's really important to remember that this affects all income categorizes, and all families, regardless of income. Now obviously, a lack of hope and a lack of opportunity is more likely to drive you to this kind of addiction. But listen, I've got this problem in my areas where we've got low incomes folks living, and where we've got this problem in areas where I've got high income folks living. It can affect anyone. And the interesting thing is, since I've raised this issue across the state, I just left my local Chamber of Commerce, Champlain Chamber here in Burlington. You know every time now I go into a crowd of 60-70 people, I have at least three or four that come up to me and say, 'Thank you, my son's addicted, my daughter's addicted. This is our problem, these are our kids, and it affects all incomes.'"
"I have no doubt in my mind that when we chose to legalize opiates in pill form as we see in Oxycontin and in other pain killers, we made a decision to make opiates available in ways that we hadn't in the past. And if we think that's there's not a link between F.D.A.-approved and what people are buying on the streets, then we aren't looking at reality.
"We all know that there are a lot of reasons that drive addictions. And we've always had addiction challenges, whether it's with alcohol or anything else. I think what's changed is, that we really do treat opiates through F.D.A. approved drugs as if it's an option that should be made available for almost any pain or discomfort. And if we're gonna do that, we have to accept the fact that opiates are extremely addictive. It's apparently a high that is like no other. And I believe that this epidemic is being drive by a government approach to pain killers.
"It doesn't work. We continue to lose the 'War on Drugs' and at some point you gotta pause and say, 'What are we doing wrong?' Here's what I think we're doing wrong. With opiates, you have a very small window to convince people that treatment is a better option that addiction. You know, folks are addicted to opiates are the best deniers and the best liars that you'll ever meet. And the bottom line is, it's when the blue lights are flashing , when you've been busted, when you're down and out, that you're most likely to go to treatment. And in Vermont, and the most other 49 states if they're like Vermont, our court system is not set up to deal with that moment of opportunity. So what we're gonna try do here is move our judicial system so that our prosecutors have a third-party independent assessment that figures out whether you're an addict — someone that we should be disappointed in perhaps, angry at perhaps, but not fearful of — or whether you're someone we should fear. If you're someone we should fear, we're gonna put you through the old court system and lock you up. If you're someone that we might be mad at or disappointed in but think you can be treated, we'll offer you treatment right there. And if you agree with it, and then you comply with it, we're gonna spend the money to follow you closely and give you the services just like heart disease, kidney disease, any other health care challenge, then you'll never go through the court system.
"You know this is not a cheery subject to talk about. So no one's saying 'Hey thanks for being so cheery, Governor!' But this is what they are saying, they're saying 'Listen, we recognize that we have this problem in our community, probably in every area of the country, but I'm pleased that we have the commitment from all of us to work together to come up with a solution to what is a health care crisis and stop the denial.'"
Do Gov. Shumlin's comments on opiate and heroin addiction ring true in your community? Have you seen what addiction can do? Let us know in the comments below, or on Facebook, Tumblr and @OnPointRadio.
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