MONTPELIER, Vt. — A group of prosecutors and lawmakers say more needs to be done to end the failed war on drugs.
The group held a virtual news briefing Wednesday to discuss Vermont’s ongoing opioid epidemic.
Advocate Brenda Siegel said the epidemic is “one of the most urgent crises that is facing Vermonters today.”
Siegel said the disease of addiction needs to be taken out of the criminal justice system.
“We have to put it in the hands of science just as we would on climate change and with COVID. It has to be about the science and those that have experienced the problem,” she said.
She then spoke about her experience. On March 8, 2018, her nephew Kaya Siegel died of an overdose. She said her nephew was her brother’s son and her brother died just over 20 years before that, also because of heroin.
She said according to the state Department of Health, the current hub-and-spoke model is only reaching three in 10 people who need it.
“Which means that 70% of people are falling through the cracks. We know that because our deaths never decrease. Never. The rate of increase slowed some years, but the number of deaths did not,” she said.
She said 99 people overdosed and died in 2019 and by the end of November 2020 that number had gone up to 134.
Rep. Dane Whitman, D-Bennington, talked about his experience with his older brother Forest’s addiction. Whitman said his brother would steal, sometimes from family members, and was in and out of jail.
“By the time I left my family to go to college, I knew that I was leaving my brother teetering on the edge of life and death. And it was at that point that I did something that I’ll always regret, I stopped answering his phone calls. I stopped talking to him. I was starting a new life for myself and I wanted to forget about all the darkness and severe challenges facing my family. I was also afraid. Afraid that I didn’t know how to help my brother. Afraid that if I did or said the wrong thing it could push him over the edge. I did not have the courage to be there for the person that needed me most” he said.
Whitman said he hopes others can have the courage that he lacked then. He said conversations about addiction are uncomfortable, painful and unfortunately controversial.
Whitman said he doesn’t know why his brother is still alive today, healthy and financially independent. But he said he is so grateful that his brother remains one of his best friends.
“I’m not going to pretend that I have the wisdom to know the difference between what we can and what we cannot change. That being said, I’m glad that my fellow legislators have some ideas,” he said.
Brian Cina, P/D-Chittenden, said he’s working on legislation that would decriminalize the possession of certain regulated drugs that are derived from mushrooms and plants, such as peyote and psilocybin mushrooms. Cina said humans have had a close relationship with these plants and fungi that goes back to the beginning of humanity.
He said these drugs have spiritual, religious and medical uses.
“This criminalization of ancient healing practices has disconnected humans from nature. And it has reinforced pain, suffering and stigma. Yet these medicines are very powerful and they have the potential to heal trauma, to treat pain and to overcome addiction,” he said.
Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky, P/D-Chittenden, is a social worker and she said she’s working on legislation that would end all pre-authorization for substance use disorder treatment, including for those on Medicaid. Vyhovsky said the bill would get rid of caps on inpatient treatment placed by health insurance companies and length of stay pre-authorizations.
“(It would be) allowing a patient and their treatment team to be the ones to decide how much time someone needs to be inpatient for, rather than allowing that choice to be made by insurance companies,” she said.
Another proposed bill would decriminalize small, therapeutic amounts of buprenorphine, a narcotic used to treat opioid addiction.
Siegel said her nephew was in treatment when an arrest warrant was issued because he missed a court date. She said during the court hearing there was no recognition for the work he had done, though he was the healthiest she had seen him in some time. Siegel said she watched her nephew “spiral into shame,” and he was dead within two weeks.
Rep. William Notte, D-Rutland, said he’s working on legislation that would suspend the use of warrants when there is no significant risk to the public.
“If someone is in treatment, if someone is in a safe recovery process, that person should be allowed to continue on that path. Someone should not have to stop this process to attend a court hearing,” Notte said.
He said the bill would not apply to those accused of violent crimes.
Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George said in a prerecorded video she supports legislation that prioritizes harm reduction over criminalization. George said to truly treat drug use as a public health issue, the response needs to be based on patience and compassion, not forced treatment and incarceration.
She called for the decriminalization of all drugs and to follow the lead of Portugal and Oregon, which have done just that.
“Or we should stop saying we want to treat this disease like a public health issue,” George said.
Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan said he doesn’t support full decriminalization, but addiction is a disease and needs to be treated as such. Donovan pointed to the pharmaceutical companies that pushed for the sale of opioids and targeted patients. His office recently announced Vermont will receive a little more than $1.5 million as part of a national settlement with Purdue Pharma for the company’s role in the epidemic.
“Think of how many Vermonters started by going to a doctor’s office for a minor medical procedure and they are prescribed these incredibly addictive drugs. And their life has been ruined by forces far greater than anyone could have imagined,” he said.
Donovan said addiction isn’t a personal or moral failing. He called on legislators to think outside of the box to truly address the epidemic.