A coalition of lawmakers and prosecutors, inspired by personal stories of struggle against addiction from Bennington state Rep. Dane Whitman and Newfane activist Brenda Siegel, marked National Recovery Day by calling for substantial changes refocusing the state’s attention on the opioid epidemic as a health crisis.
Participants, including two state’s attorneys and several lawmakers, said the state needs a harm reduction and science-based policy based on lived experience and prioritizing harm prevention and saving lives.
Siegel pointed to the increase in overdoses in Vermont last year, during the pandemic — 134 though November, according to preliminary figures — and said the state’s “hub and spoke” treatment system is only reaching three out of every 10 people who need treatment.
Attorney General T.J. Donovan said he supported efforts to treat addiction as a disease, not as a crime.
“We know a healthy community is a safer community and public health strategies only serve to enhance public safety. It makes sense,” he said. “This is putting people first. This is understanding that addiction is a disease and needs to be treated as such.”
The proposals include legalizing buprenorphine to increase medically assisted treatment of opioid addition; eliminating warrants for people actively undergoing treatment, a pilot program for mobile distribution of addiction treatment; and ending insurance pre-authorization for drug treatment centers.
But two proposals unveiled Wednesday ran into some resistance from Donovan: A call by Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George for complete decriminalization of drugs, and a bill to be proposed by state Rep. Brian Cina that would decriminalize plant and fungus-based substances including peyote, mescaline and psilocybin (the psychoactive compound in “magic mushrooms”).
George, who spoke by a pre-taped message, said drug possession is the most common arrest in the United States, and disproportionately targets people of color.
“We are not giving the impression that people who have mental health or substance abuse diseases are valued members of our society,” George said. “We should be following Portugal and Oregon’s lead in full decriminalization.”
“Drugs are not illegal because they are dangerous but they are certainly more dangerous because they are illegal,” George added. “Everything is safer when it is legalized.”
Donovan said he may not be able to support everything discussed during the news conference. When asked specifically what that included, he said “full decriminalization.” He said that would include Cina’s proposal as well.
The virtual gathering came as Gov. Phil Scott released a proclamation announcing Wednesday as Recovery Day in Vermont.
“Highlighting this day also sends a message to those who are struggling that there is hope. To those who need support, please know that help and services are available, and there are many of us who care about you. Recovery is possible, and we want to do all we can to help you get there,” Scott said in a prepared statement.
Whitman, D-Bennington 2-1, told the story of being unable to find the courage to help his brother, who was suffering from addiction.
Whitman said he and his brother had tried drugs “in spite of all the laws we were breaking and all the harm we were doing.” But for his brother, misuse became addiction, and he lost his job, relied on dealing to feed his own habit, and landed in jail.
“By the time I left my family to go to college I knew I was leaving my brother teetering on the edge of life and death,” Whitman said. “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 the darkness and severe challenges facing my family. I was afraid ... I didn’t know how to help my brother. I did not have the courage to be there for the person who needed me most.”
Whitman’s brother ultimately recovered. But the experience taught Whitman about the importance of having the courage to be there for a family member or friend in need.
“As a representative for Bennington and member of the Health and Human Services Committee I am not going to stay silent on this issue,” he said.
A bill to be proposed by Rep. William, Notte, D-Rutland 5-4, would suspend the use of warrants to appear for persons in a safe treatment setting and posing no risk to public safety.
“The smart thing to do is to allow people in treatment to remain there,” Notte said. “No good comes from punishing someone.”
For Siegel, whose nephew died of an overdose in 2018, that proposal has personal resonance: Her nephew had come home to Windham County to answer to such a warrant. While he was home, after a year in recovery, he experienced a relapse and fatal overdose, a death Siegel said “broke me.”
“He told me he wanted to survive,” Siegel said. “I watched the system fail him time and time again.”
The mobile treatment proposal, to be offered by state Sen. Kesha Ram, D/P-Chittenden, is based on a program she saw first-hand in Lisbon, Portugal. Ram said she sees the program starting as mobile delivery of COVID-19 vaccines, then evolving into a mobile medical service serving people in recovery.
“One thing I heard over and over again [in Portugal] is relationships are the best medicine,” Ram said. “Our job is to recreate this intersection and create opportunities for other people to be that relationship.”
The buprenorphine bill, said state Rep. Selene Colburn, the House Progressive Caucus leader, is based on a similar bill that was approved by a House committee last year but ended the session in limbo. She said the bill is a priority for House leadership this year and is optimistic about its chances for passage.
“Perhaps it was too controversial or in people’s minds it wasn’t connected to COVID,” Colburn said. “But at the time we had more overdose deaths than COVID deaths. I’m here to say we cannot make this mistake again.”
Colburn also said she is working on a suite of bills with Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Windham 2-1, to expand the state’s “harm-reduction approaches.”
“One of the reasons I ran [for office] was to work on these issues,” Colburn said. “I was surprised to find how little focus or attention they received in the legislature when I arrived. I hope today marks a turning point.”
Also taking part in the announcement were Addison State’s Attorney Dennis Wygmans and state Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky, whose proposal would eliminate the length of stay caps at treatment centers. “It would allow the patient and treatment team to be the ones who decide” how long treatment should last, she said.