by Don Keelan
Ten years ago, when Governor Peter Shumlin delivered his State of the State address, he created a national news event; his address was almost 100% devoted to the heroin problem ravaging Vermont.
Little did the Governor know that more powerful drugs–Fentanyl, Methamphetamine, and Xylazine (words not even in the drug lexicon at the time,)–would dominate the Vermont illicit drug market in 2023.
In the next nine years, 1,200 Vermonters lost their lives from a drug overdose, according to Seven Days reporter, Colin Flanders, in his June 2023 detailed report on illegal drug use in Vermont.
After plotting Flanders’ statistics on overdose deaths for the last nine years, my informal trend line points to a doubling of deaths; 2,450 by 2027. Hopefully, this tragic statistic will be unrealized. However, as Flanders points out, Vermont has over 8,000 people in treatment for opioid addiction (he does not mention the number who are waiting), making Vermont one of the highest per capita rates in the world.
If this fact is accurate, it is one of the greatest catastrophes that Vermont has ever endured. The tragedy remains despite the State’s financial and human treasure attempting to prevent it: hundreds of millions of dollars and professional personnel have been devoted to the crisis. We are still losing lives at 250 a year and climbing.
How bad is the problem? On a recent Thursday in Burlington, the city’s fire/rescue department was called out over 12 times to deal with drug overdose events. Some calls were for the same individual. Sadly, the dedicated medical personnel at our State’s medical institutions are becoming exhausted and burned out constantly dealing with addiction/overdose patients.
The problem has many aspects, impacting institutions, businesses, nonprofits, and government from policing, courts, Probation and Corrections, and families. Correction officials note that over 60% of its incarcerated are detained because of drugs.
In his June piece, Colin Flanders quotes a recovering 76-year-old addict who is now working on the promotion of safe injection sites: “‘We’ve changed our language but,’ he said, pointing to his heart, ‘in here, we still don’t care if they
die.”’ We do care, and it is evident by the State resources and others who have devoted themselves to those impacted by this disease. But what more can be done?
I am probably the least qualified to address addiction; however, as a columnist, I have a license to present an opinion(s) on how we might change.
First, the political leadership of Vermont—the Legislature, the Administration, and the Justice system, must stop denying the problem’s severity and place its eradication as the number one issue.
Second, blizzard the State with educational material that addresses what is taking place and the permanent harm caused by taking illegal drugs.
Third, make drugs like Narcan, Methadone, and Buprenorphine available in all Vermont towns (Bennington has been waiting years for a Methadone hub center). At the same time, open dozens of Jenna’s Promise sites that can provide not one or two weeks of recovery, but one year. In other words, the leadership of the State should redo H.222 and increase its funding 100 times.
Fourth, the judicial and law enforcement government branches must aggressively rethink the sentencing of those convicted of distributing illegal drugs and those who do so with death resulting.
Recently, I wrote a column asking where the young people in Vermont are. After reading Colin Flanders’ piece, I know where many have been. They are in homeless shelters, halfway houses, prisons, recovery centers, hospitals ED and ICUs, and tragically, hundreds are in the State medical examiner’s exam rooms.
Vermont does not have a great population of young people. At the rate that young adults are dying from overdose, being incarcerated, and ending up in recovery centers, do you need to ask, where are the young people?
The author is a U.S. Marine (retired), CPA, and columnist living in Arlington, VT.