The PJ Tatler

'Full-Blown Heroin Crisis': Vermont Governor Says Drug Surge Deadlier Than Cars or Guns

Vermont’s governor dedicated his entire state of the state address this week to the scourge of drug addiction, stressing that the uptick in heroin use is more deadly that guns or “all of the other things that we keep talking about.”

“What started as an OxyContin and prescription drug addiction problem in this state has now grown into a full-blown heroin crisis,” Peter Shumlin said of the 770 percent increase in opiate treatment in his home state since 2000.

The White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy has also reported the number of deaths involving heroin jumped 45 percent between 1999 and 2010.

“I mean, obviously, it’s no more serious than the other states around us. I think, I hope that the difference is that I’m willing to confront it and, as governor, take it on head on. And, listen, here’s the challenge. We have lost the war on drugs. The notion that we can arrest our way out of this problem is yesterday’s theory,” Shumlin told PBS.

“This is one of the real battles that we’re facing that we have got to win. And we have got to do that by changing the discussion and changing the policy, so that we say that what heroin addicts and folks that are addicted to opiates are facing is a public health issue, not a crime issue. And we have got to be willing to fight it from that vantage point.”

Shumlin said he feels especially strong about the issue because so few leaders seem to want to talk about it.

“Governors don’t like talking about it because we’re afraid that when we move our policy from law enforcement, and the belief and the fantasy that you can beat this just with law enforcement, and, in fact, have to treat it with treatment and with services that will help folks move from addiction to recovery, that something will go wrong, and that therefore we don’t dare take any risk,” he said.

“So I say the risk for Vermont, frankly, the risk for the other states around the country is, we have got more people dying from opiate addiction and from drug addiction than is killing us in automobiles, killing us with guns, killing us with all of the other things that we keep talking about,” Shumlin continued. “So let’s start facing this as the health crisis that it is and change our policies, so that we can start actually making progress and moving people from addiction to recovery.”

When asked if there’s a profile of the person who’s using, the governor replied, “Everybody.”

“We tend to live under the fantasy that we’re talking about folks who are only growing up in poverty and have no opportunity and no hope. Now, listen, that’s a problem. It definitely afflicts folks who have no opportunity and no hope,” Shumlin said. “But it also afflicts people who have huge opportunity and who are wealthy. So it crosses all economic lines.”

In bigger cities, heroin can be bought for $6 or $7 a bag, he noted. In Vermont, it sells for $20 or $30 a bag.

“So you can do the math. A short drive up the interstate, and you are going to see a huge profit. So the challenge we’re facing is that, as this did begin as an OxyContin and prescription drug crisis, now heroin is cheaper than OxyContin on the streets, and it’s frankly more available,” he said. “So that’s the challenge that I’m facing as a governor. Now, the question is, how do you deal with it? And the answer for me is, I have got people who are ready for treatment. The biggest challenge with opiate addicts, an opiate addict, a drug addict, they’re the best liars and the best deniers you’re ever going to meet.”

“But there is a window of opportunity, all the research suggests, where you can convince them that treatment is the best option. And it tends to be when they’re busted, when the blue lights are flashing and when you have an opportunity. Now, the problem with my judicial system and probably every one in the country is that there is a huge gap between that moment of opportunity to talk them into treatment and the court process that it takes weeks or months to wind your way through,” Shumlin added.

“So I’m changing the judicial process that I give my prosecutors and my judges a third-party independent assessment to go right in, right upon the bust and figure out, you know, who we should be mad at, disappointed in, and who we should be afraid of.”