VT Gov in Historic Addictions Focused State-of-State Address

Addiction Treatment Industry Newswire
01/10/2014 –ATIN – In a pioneering state-of-the-state speech, which governors around the nation give at this time to kick-off legislative and policy agendas, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin devoted his entire annual address to the vicious and skyrocketing problem of substance abuse in a tiny state that has been beset in recent years by addiction issues in general but particularly by an enormous and deadly surge in heroin abuse. It is very highly unusual – historically and as a matter of precedent and custom it is hard to overemphasize this point – for a governor to devote an entire state-of-the-state speech to a single issue. Governor Shumlin’s decision to devote all 34 minutes of Wednesday’s address in Montpelier to substance abuse underscores the growing frustration of state and local politicians at the glacial pace of Drug War reform. For decades there has been huge investment in prison and police infrastructure and comparatively tiny investment in addiction treatment – many states have little or no organized system or infrastructure whatsoever – leaving much of the country hapless in the face of growing recognition of a national addiction epidemic.

Calls for an End to NIMBY

Governor Shumlin told the assembled that the time had come to stop averting our eyes from the addiction problem in our front yards while “we fear and fight treatment facilities in our backyards” in a clear reference to the never-ending and growing problem of NIMBYism not just in Vermont, but everywhere there’s a new center or an existing one seeks expansion. Underscoring the widespread concern and backing for change and action on the addiction front, representatives from across the spectrum from police to health care execs, mayors, prosecutors and families, and even the state’s chief justice, all assembled behind the governor as he addressed the combined houses of the state chamber.

Vermont Overwhelmed

The nation’s second smallest state with 600K population, less than ten percent of the population of Manhattan, has been overwhelmed by a heroin epidemic that has been driven by the peculiarities and unintended consequences of a War on Drugs dragnet in recent years that sent the street value of prescription opiates out-of-reach, a void filled by anyone who can buy a bag of heroin for $5 in Boston and drive the short distance to Vermont and sell it for $10. Almost 2,500 people are on state-funded opiate care, up from just 220 a decade ago, with spending on addictions care also rising by ten-fold in the period to $6M. The treatment industry in Vermont is dominated by for-profit opiate cinics, which account for an overwheming percentage of facilties. And treatment centers have run into dificulties expanding, with the state’s most prestigious and well-run residential non-profit Maple Leaf Farms canceling plans that would have more than doubled the center’s capacity.

Chief Justice

And the state’s top judge was unequivocal about the the failure of the judicial system to properly handle addiction issues and the need to move primary responsibility for fighting addiction into the hands of the health care system. Chief Justice Paul Reiber was on hand backing up the governor, telling local reporters “the criminal justice system cannot solve the drug addiction problem; instead the problem is rapidly growing.”

Alcohol Abuse Still Dominates, But Talk is All “Drugs”

The chief justice singled out drugs, and the governor overwhelmingly focused on drugs in his speech, but like every place else alcohol is the biggest problem in Vermont despite the surge in opiate abuse. Almost 45 percent of people in treatment in Vermont reported their drug choice was primarily alcohol vs. 37 percent for opiates. And also like every place else, Vermont probably taxes alcohol at rates that when inflation-adjusted are at 1950s levels while the governor moans for 34 minutes about a lack of funding for “the drug problem.” And amidst shocking stories of binge drinking abuse nationwide, and at the many colleges and universities in Vermont, the federal government has allowed television advertising for hard liquor in a reversal of a ban that is a no brainer and that had been self-imposed by the liquor industry. Not surprisingly, hard liquor sales to youth are soaring. Young men now trade barbs about which brand of hard liquor is coolest, as the ads do their job… trying to make which brand of liquor one drinks as important on the image meter as the car one drives.

Policy Failure

At the very least policy should not allow for widespread messaging on the airwaves that makes drinking hard liquor seem “cool.” Hard liquor – Barcardi 150 proof rum… hello?!!! – is as dangerous a drug as exists, yet we have allowed their manufacturers to quietly work to remove what were for decades basic and minimum safeguards… all the while talking about the drug problem.




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