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City Councilors Hear Depth Of Addiction Crisis

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Burlington, Vermont city councilors heard a report Monday from health and law enforcement officials about the level and impact of the opiate addiction crisis on the city. The city is the latest in our region to grapple with what officials have called an epidemic.
Last year, Burlington’s mayor directed the new Chief of Police to review strategies for dealing with opiate addiction and trafficking in the city.  Chief Brandon del Pozo was tasked with determining if new policing strategies should also seek enhanced collaborations with medical and treatment facilities.  

On Monday evening, councilors heard an update from Burlington’s police chief, the head of a drug rehabilitation center and Vermont’s Health Commissioner.

City Council President Progressive Jane Knodell says the panel had passed a resolution in September asking the chief to return to the council with a plan that addresses worsening drug trafficking in the city.   “We asked specifically do you need higher staffing? Should we establish a police substation on North Street? And should we consider designating drug houses, that is houses where we know there is a lot of trafficking going on, designate them as common nuisances in order to shut the houses down?  We also acknowledged that the opiate problem is primarily a public health problem that has a law enforcement element to it.”  

The Howard Center is the state’s largest preferred provider for substance abuse services.  The methodone clinic it operates currently has more than 200 individuals on a waiting list.   CEO Bob Bick says the city reflects opiate problems across the state and nation.  He says the police chief is taking a reasonable approach in weighing the implications of criminal behavior and the health crisis.   “What he was highlighting was, which I very much appreciated, was an acknowledgement that we’re not going to arrest our way out of this situation; that it’s an epidemic that’s going to take the coordination of a whole range of community resources which includes law enforcement and the courts, treatment providers and prevention providers, the Department of Health, the local hospital and our schools.”

Bick says part of the problem is that no one knows how deep the addiction problem really is.   “One of the metaphors that I’ve used is that the number of individuals that we have in treatment, that’s the amount of the iceberg that you can see above the waterline. The number of individuals that are on our waiting list, or that we might be providing some support services in one of our harm reduction programs,  that’s the amount of iceberg below the waterline.  We just don’t know how much of that iceberg exists below what we can see.”

City Council Public Safety Committee member North District Independent Dave Hartnett says the problem is more complicated than he realized after hearing the reports.   “We came out of it with a two pronged approach. We‘ve got to get tougher and we’ve got to make it difficult for these people to do business here.  But also address and try to get the people that really need some help, some help.”

East District Progressive Selene Colburn is also a member of the Public Safety Committee.  She plans to offer two resolutions at the next council meeting to help address Burlington’s addiction crisis.  “One asks the state to ensure that we have ample funding for our needle exchange program.  They lost some federal funding.  Also there’s actually a federal restriction that says that advanced practitioners like nurse practitioners can’t be part of the prescribing solution for folks who desperately need treatment.  So I’m also bringing an advisory resolution to our Congressional delegation asking them to work toward enacting new federal guidelines.”

Overdose emergency calls in Burlington in 2015 were 103 percent above the three-year average between 2012 to 2014.  Crimes related to drugs such as retail theft and robberies also increased.

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