by C.B. Hall
About 60 people turned out April 8 at Norwich University’s Plumley Armory to hear Governor Peter Shumlin and a panel of experts discuss Vermont’s struggle with opiate addiction. The program, “What Ails Vermont: Is There a Cure to the Drug Epidemic?,” was sponsored by the university and the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation.
Shumlin delivered keynote remarks before turning the stage over to four panelists: state health commissioner Harry Chen, state police director Thomas L’Esperance, Norwich professor David Orrick, and Vermont Center for Justice Research director, Max Schlueter.
Alluding to drug-fueled crime, Shumlin said, “Things are happening that didn’t used to happen in Vermont.” He wasted no words in pinpointing what precipitated the change: the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of OxyContin as a prescription drug. A semi-synthetic opioid pain-reliever, the drug has a high addiction potential, leading some to call it “heroin in a pill.” Illegally obtained OxyContin, moreover, can be so expensive that addicts move on to heroin as a cheaper alternative.
“We’ve got to do something about it,” Shumlin declared. “We’ve done enough talking.”
Central to the opiate action plan, Shumlin outlined in his January State of the State message, is substituting treatment for jail. The goal, he said at Norwich, is to eliminate waiting lists for treatment centers within one year. He was quick to tie that initiative to the need to save taxpayers “a ton of money”: it costs $1136 a week to lock up an addict but only $132 a week for treatment, he said.
“Nothing can be more debilitating than to pretend [the problem] is not in our own front yards,” he concluded.
Among the panelists, Orrick took the widest-angle view of the problem, stating that “we’ve built on America’s love of self-medication.” In addition to the FDA approval of OxyContin, he cited two events that have made the anti-drug wars all the more difficult: the commencement of direct advertising of prescription drugs, and the FDA’s decision to make drugs containing pseudoephedrine, a raw material in crystal meth manufacturing, available without a prescription.
In response to a question from the floor, Chen pointed to another societal factor: the practice of scoring medical providers’ performance in terms of success in alleviating pain. That leads doctors to take a free hand in feeding patients analgesics like OxyContin.
“I think we went too far” in over-medicating and over-prescribing, he said.
Drug policy gets complicated when an FDA-approved painkiller becomes a gateway to heroin, and when the furor over opiates coexists with an increasing acceptance of marijuana, once broadly demonized as a precursor to heroin dependency.
Asked, as he left, if he felt legalization of marijuana could free up resources from justice administration to help the fight against opiates, Shumlin—whom The New York Times recently described as “open to” legalization—gave a qualified yes. “I support it,” he said, “but I’m glad that Colorado and Washington are going to go first—there are a lot of technical and legal issues to figure out.”
Asked the same question after the program, L’Esperance answered, “No – [marijuana’s illegal status] is not tying up resources like some people say.” Moreover, he added, “With the move towards legalization, the [anti-drug] message we’re trying to get through to kids gets polluted.”
Sen. Bill Doyle’s recent town meeting poll found 44 percent of Vermonters in favor of legalization and 45 percent opposed. The survey found 89 percent of Vermonters concerned about opiate use; only 5 percent weren’t. For Shumlin and other policymakers, the political challenge lies in making the case for a liberal policy on marijuana while combating the dangers of harder drugs.