Substance abuse issues aired and solutions shared at Statehouse forum


MONTPELIER -- Victor Twiggs says the addicts come for the pizza. The director of GYST - "Get Your Stuff Together" - Twiggs is building a support system for troubled young men, often with substance abuse issues, on Tuesday nights in Morrisville.

"I just see a light come on in their eyes when they see that someone's really listening to what they have to say," Twiggs told a full Statehouse chamber Monday.

Twiggs was one of nearly 200 participants in a community forum who came together to address problems associated with opiate addiction and trafficking on Monday.

The purpose of the forum was to build a collaborative, statewide approach to solutions in local communities. Counselors, recovering drug addicts, law enforcement officers, nonprofit representatives and elected officials from around Vermont shared ideas and resources as they sorted through the causes of the state's escalating drug problem.

The forum - which included speakers, panels and community-based discussions - was commissioned by Gov. Peter Shumlin and organized by the Vermont Department of Health.

Rutland Mayor Chris Louras spoke about Rutland's comprehensive approach to substance abuse treatment. In 2013, the city launched Project Vision, a coalition of community groups that are working together to solve drug-related challenges.

"The opiate epidemic is not a public health issue, it is not a law enforcement issue or a health care issue any more than it is a poverty issue or an issue of chaotic households. It is all of those. Unless you accept that, you are doomed to failure," said Louras.

The event provided a framework for an ongoing statewide discussion about opiate abuse that was launched in January when Shumlin drew national attention to Vermont's drug problems in his State of the State address.

At the forum, Shumlin touted that public discussion as an accomplishment. "We've made it possible to talk about addiction and recovery, to talk about what we're doing well and what we're not doing well. To collectively raise our voices to talk about an issue that no one wants to talk about."

Health Commissioner Harry Chen laid out the statistics: Opioid users become addicted after mere days of drug use, and seek treatment after an average of eight years of use, compared to nearly 25 for alcoholism. More than 50 Vermonters died of opioid poisoning in 2013. Last year was the first year that more people sought treatment for opioid use than for alcohol.

"I actually thought I'd never see that," Chen said. "But it's here."

Until three years and 131 days ago, that was Raina Lowell's reality. She talked about what it was like to be an intravenous heroin user, a crack addict and an alcoholic. She described living without heat in the winter, stealing firewood from her neighbor to keep her children warm at night, losing everything she had down to her self-respect and hope.

"The truth is, being an addict does define me," Lowell said. "Addiction has affected every single aspect of my life. Being an addict in treatment tells you everything you need to know about me."

Lowell tells her story "to make it a little easier to find the human being stuck deep inside the shell of an addict. Only then we can create change," she said. She left the podium to a standing ovation.

One by one, forum participants talked about their own experiences with addiction and how they are trying to tackle the issue in their communities.

Pat Martin started a weekly support group after the 1999 death of her 19-year-old daughter Sarah to heroin overdose. "Wit's End" in Rutland helps families cope with the devastating impacts of addiction. Burlington High School offers in-school addiction counseling and Susie Walker provides a peer recovery counseling in Brattleboro. Burlington Labs hires ex-convicts or recovering drug addicts, and others provide housing for those in recovery, or use alternative treatments methods like yoga, meditation and arts.

The Shumlin administration has committed $12 million to the crisis this year. The goal, Shumlin said, is to examine the issue from a variety of perspectives, "and turn it into the most innovative practices possible. We want to make sure that with the money we're spending, no one who calls up asking for treatment has to wait in line."

On Tuesday, Shumlin will sign a bill that allows for a third-party assessment with drug convictions that will allow the defendant - if deemed eligible - to seek treatment and avoid judicial processes entirely. "You'll never have a charge filed against you and you'll never go through the court system. And that's just common sense," the governor said, to applause.

Later this week, Shumlin also meets with Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick to address cross-border drug issues. On Thursday, Shumlin will travel to the White House for a national conference on drug policy.

The Vermont Department of Health has organized meetings for 12 Vermont cities or "community" groups that will convene again in July, and come out with actions to take, and a list of desired outcomes. St. Johnsbury participants want to increase outreach to schools and business community and the Windham County group will conduct "asset mapping," to identify resources and services and the gaps that remain.

"We can't solve this problem without owning it and embracing it," Chen said. "Everyone here has a part to play the good news is Vermonters excel at community action."


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