BARRE >> Barre Mayor Thom Lauzon laid down the hammer on opiate dealers Thursday, saying anyone caught selling should receive an automatic 50-year jail sentence.
Lauzon said the opiate addiction epidemic is spreading in Vermont and there needs to be more focus on effective enforcement, including stiffer prison terms — although he said treatment programs are also critical.
Two years ago, Gov. Peter Shumlin used his State of the State address to highlight the problem of addiction to painkillers and heroin. Since then, treatment programs have expanded significantly in Vermont.
Lauzon said he supports treatment programs and wants to see them expanded even further. But he said a greater deterrence is needed to stop people from selling, which he said would cut the supply.
"The governor has allocated tremendous resources, appropriately. I think he did exactly the right thing trying to minimize the stigma, making sure that treatment was available to addicts who want to seek treatment," Lauzon said in an interview at the Statehouse. "And I think we need to keep doing that, but as I look at the effect of those resources, I've never seen a problem quite like this."
"Normally we allocate resources to a problem and we affect the data somehow. And as I look at this data, we're not affecting the underlying data — the number of addicts is simply going up. The problem is getting worse, the cost is getting higher, not only the financial cost, but the emotional cost," he said.
Lauzon said he was going to request support for his 50-year minimum sentence from the state's other mayors when they meet in April. He said the problem was so serious he was considering asking House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, and Gov. Peter Shumlin to call lawmakers back for a special session to deal with the problem.
The mayor said he recently met a family whose child died of an overdose. They were emotionally, physically and financially drained after trying to get their son off opiates, he said.
"The wake behind an addict is huge, it's absolutely huge, and we've tried treating our way out of the problem and we're not affecting the underlying data, so I believe it's time to start looking at the enforcement piece," Lauzon said. "I think it's time to ratchet up the penalty."
Lauzon said his proposal would apply to any amount sold, even small amounts. The only exception, he said, should be if an addict requests treatment, is turned away and then sells to maintain his habit.
Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn said he too felt there should be more emphasis placed on enforcement, but he disagreed with Lauzon's one-size-fits-all approach.
"There has to be a degree of proportionality to sentencing," Flynn said. "You have to make sure that when you're sentencing, first of all we don't sentence categories, we sentence individuals, and I think that when you have a sentence it needs to be in proportion to the crime, it needs to be equal to the crime, you need to look at the individual in sentencing."
Flynn said he was less concerned about the small-time sellers paying for their habit than the large-scale dealers who bring in drugs from outside Vermont.
"I agree that people that are bringing drugs into the state purely for a profit incentive, we need to hit them and hit them hard, and I think it's important to send a message out to people that want to come here that Vermont is not open for business for heroin," Flynn said. "I agree we need stiff sentences and we need to do that, but I'm always a little hesitant when people talk about categories of people without looking at individuals."
Lauzon insisted he was not engaging in hyperbole. Asked where the prisoners would be housed, he said: "You can pay now (for prisons) or pay later (for treatment programs)."
"Perhaps some of the solutions to this problem, there will be those in the state who are not going to find them too palatable," Lauzon said. "But literally, we're in a fight for our lives. It's that serious, and anyone who says it's not is lying to you."
He said Barre, like Montpelier, has a policy of not bringing charges against a user who turns over drugs to the police and seeks treatment.
Should Lauzon's idea come to pass, he has a piece of advice for anyone caught selling.
"Bring your Social Security card with you. You're going to need it," he said.
Mark Johnson is a senior editor and reporter for VTDigger.