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Senate Judiciary Committee Looks At Vermont Drug Abuse

Kaushik Narasimhan/Flickr

A field hearing of the U.S. Senate Judiciary committee was held in Rutland on Monday to take testimony on Vermont’s efforts to deal with heroin and opiod addiction.

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin brought the issue of drug addiction to national attention when he devoted his State of the State speech in January to the challenges Vermont faces in dealing with drug abuse and addiction. On Monday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, the senior Democrat in the Senate, convened a field hearing in Rutland called “Community Solutions to Breaking the Cycle of Heroin and Opioid Addiction.” Leahy called it a complex challenge for communities of all sizes across the country.  “Vermont is way ahead of the country in many ways. We’ve openly identified the problem. We’re trying to find ways to access ways to help addicts get clean to stop this. We’ve heard many times and it bears repeating, and I say this as somebody who spent eight years as a state’s attorney, you cannot arrest your way out of this problem. You can’t just put it on the backs of law enforcement. You have prevention, education and treatment that has to go along with law enforcement. We have to get ahead of addiction.”

U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont Tristram Coffin noted that on March 10th,  U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called the rise in overdose deaths from heroin and prescription painkillers an urgent public health crisis. Coffin agrees, citing data showing heroin overdose deaths nationally between 2006 and 2010 rose 45 percent. In Vermont, he says, heroin treatment is up over 250 percent since 2000 and over 40 percent in just the last year. His office is prosecuting more heroin traffickers, with indictments more than doubling last year.  “To me one of the starkest statistics is the increase in fatal heroin overdoses we have here in Vermont. Last year’s total, a record 21, was more than twice as the year before, which was also a record. We’re not giving the community what it deserves if we offer up only an expensive solution: unlimited incarceration that does not address the root causes of the problem. When we look at the problem of heroin and opiod use law enforcement alone is not sufficient to address the problem. Community responses emphasizing prevention and treatment are essential complements to work in conjunction with law enforcement to make the community a safer and more drug-free place.”

The most compelling testimony came from Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Burlington Executive Director Mary Alice McKenzie, who told the panel what children face in Vermont’s largest city. The Boys & Girls Club serves children between the age of 5 and 19. About three years ago, according to McKenzie, they started getting very concerned about what they were witnessing and reporting to children’s services.  “We had children telling us that they were afraid to walk home at night. They told us of being followed, harassed and assaulted by those under the influence of drugs.  Thirteen and fourteen year old children telling us that they had been approached to serve as lookouts. Fifteen, sixteen year old girls told us of being offered money for sex by the same people who were selling drugs in their neighborhoods. We started having to make more and more reports to DCF (Department of Children and Families) about children who were being severely neglected. We learned very disturbingly of access being made to middle-school aged girls in exchange for drugs.”

Audio from the hearing is courtesy of VTDigger.org. A link to VTDigger’s full video of Senator Leahy’s hearing is available here.

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