By Guy Page
Through August, 129 Vermonters had died of opioid overdoses – 47% higher than the three year average of 88, according to a Nov. 8 Vermont Dept. of Health report.
The total body count through August could be as high as 146, because 17 cases are marked as “pending.” March was a particularly bad month, with 26 deaths. Overall, lethal overdoses by males continue to outnumber female overdoses by almost 2-1. The number of Vermonters seeking emergency care for overdoses is almost double the three-year average.
What is causing the surge of opioid overdose deaths?
Fentanyl. The report says fentanyl was involved in 118 of the fatalities. The super-powerful synthetic opioid is manufactured mostly in China and Mexico, and smuggled into the U.S. by drug cartels.
The report does not delve into sociological reasons for the deadly uptick. Only one of the deaths was ruled a suicide. During the pandemic lockdown (roughly January – June), emotional and physical isolation was blamed. Reportedly, more drug users died alone in their homes, state officials said. Also, the lockdown made in-person treatment – either with drug abuse counselors or recovery groups – difficult and at times impossible.
Criminal justice – or lack of it – is mentioned nowhere in the Nov. 8 report. However, at least three known factors may be contributing to the easy availability of deadly opioids, if not the overdose rate.
Prosecutorial and legislative decriminalization. Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George is on record supporting decriminalization. “Drugs are not illegal because they are dangerous, but they are certainly more dangerous because they’re illegal,”George said [VTDigger, Feb. 17]. “Everything is safer when it’s legalized and regulated, and legal drugs are safer than illegal drugs.”
With George’s endorsement, the Legislature took its first step towards decriminalization of hard drugs this year by passing H225, which “removes criminal penalties for possession of 224 milligrams or less of buprenorphine.” Also known as naloxone, buprenorphine is a prescription opioid used to treat addiction cravings. This bill is considered to be a “foot in the door” for decriminalization and legalization of even more dangerous drugs.
Even without a prosecutorial laissez-faire approach to drug crime, the pandemic-related backlog in Vermont criminal courts is prompting prosecutors to toss out hundreds of cases of all kinds. To make matters worse, at least two county courthouses have been closed for lengthy periods of time due to reasons not related directly to the pandemic backlog, including Orleans (air quality) and Grand Isle (staffing shortage).
Fewer cops. Vermont police staffing was tight even before the “defund the police” movement, including accusations of “systemic racism,” led scores of cops to opt for retirement rather than face aggressive prosecution, loss of legal immunity enjoyed by other public servants (including the Legislature), and a general spirit of dislike and suspicion from their employers – city and town elected officials, such as the Burlington City Council.
Increased legal protection for young drug dealers. Gov. Scott this year vetoed a bill that would have raised the age for prosecution as an adult to 22. If this trend becomes law, drug dealers up to the age of 22 will be granted both anonymity and the generally lighter treatment accorded to youths in Vermont courts.
(Scott also cited the State’s shortage in secure juvenile justice beds following closure of the Woodside facility – a problem underscored by the Town of Newbury’s recent rejection of a proposed replacement facility.)
Take the case of Kahliq Richardson, 18, of Rutland. Charged with homicide in connection with the April 3 shooting of Jonah Pandiani at the Quality Inn in Rutland, his defense attorney wanted Richardson, who police say was high on crack cocaine at the time of the shooting , charged in Family Court. A 2019 Vermont law gives the judge discretion to allow 18-21 year-olds to be tried as juveniles.
Veteran Vermont crime reporter Mike Donoghue has filed a motion to have the case tried in open court. The judge agreed. Times Argus editor Steve Pappas commended Donoghue: “As we have seen, young criminals committing serious crimes in this state too frequently hide behind youthful offender status. Mike’s diligence, reporting and his advocacy for the public’s right to know, as well as this ruling, keep that need for transparency front and center. Youthful offender status needs some serious rethinking.”