Brenda Siegel: Follow the science - harm reduction works

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On any given day, 20,000 to 30,000 people are suffering from Opioid Use Disorder in our state. In recent legislative testimony, the health department said they are only reaching about 3 in 10 of those people with our system.

As deaths continue to rise, it is on all of us to do something about this.

Here in Windham County those deaths rose 60% in 2018. We have nothing to celebrate. Yes, we have taken some strong action, but, none of that action matter if opioid deaths continue to rise. No amount of "uncompromising" messages from Gov. Phil Scott's administration is going to scare people into treatment — that is just not how this disease works.

Reaching 30% of people who are suffering is nothing to celebrate. In fact, any schoolkid knows that's a failing grade. We must be willing to acknowledge the 70 percent of people we are failing and do all that we can to embrace innovative solutions that could save their lives.

To start, we must hear families when they say:

"No, you are wrong, my family did have to wait, there are still wait times."

"The high barriers to medically assisted treatment do not work for my family."

"We don't have the transportation."

"The person in recovery has to be at work."

"We can't find long term in patient treatment and medicaid won't cover it."

We must hear the person in recovery who says "I am not ready to go to therapy or treatment, but I don't want to do heroin anymore. Please give me the tools not to die."

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If we can't hear these voices of our friends and neighbors, we are never going to reverse this trend.

That 60% increase in death in Windham County does not include the those who died just over the border in New Hampshire or Massachusetts. That means the Vermont death toll is, in fact, much higher. Between 2016 and 2018, Windham County deaths alone rose by a percentage that is astounding. Yet, what we hear all the time, is "look at all the great things we are doing."

I have a message from family members across our state who have lost their loved ones: We are not doing enough. We need you to do more and do better so that we can stop burying the next generation.

My understanding is that this year, the number of deaths is already unprecedented and that there is more fentanyl in the southern part of the state than in the north. This tells me that where there is increased access to treatment, decriminalized misdemeanor amounts of the life saving medication Buprenorphine, where we have come closer to removing barriers to receiving and staying on medically assisted treatment, have unlimited access to Narcan as well as access to fentanyl testing strips, not only has the number of deaths decreased, but also the demand and thus the supply for fentanyl has decreased. This did not happen in a vacuum. It happened because in Chittenden County, they have a police chief and a state's attorney who are encouraged, resourced and able to travel to learn the newest and most up to date science and they follow that science utilizing their available discretion. In addition and perhaps most importantly, they have powerful advocates at Safe Recovery (part of the Howard Center) and with Tom Dalton at Vermonters for Criminal Justice reform. This happened because the community demanded change and everyone, from government to law enforcement, responded.

It is time for us to demand change in the southern part of the state. In Windham, Rutland and Bennington counties the deaths went up. No matter what the administration says, there are lots of barriers to treatment and people wait or are kicked out all the time.

In Brattleboro, we have an excellent police chief who has endless compassion for the pain this disease causes. I know this because I myself have called him in tears in my nephew's lifetime. It is time for our region to take the next innovative step toward saving lives.

All of this may lead you to wonder what is being done in Montpelier? There is one really great bill being considered that embraces harm reduction and has the ability to reduce death along with crime, H.162. I, along with Tom Dalton, have been traveling our state, meeting with state's attorneys and some police chiefs about this and also identifying where there is a lack of resources in each county. We have been in the Statehouse advocating alongside medical professionals and folks in recovery, all hoping to see this move with the urgency required to save lives.

The decriminalization of misdemeanor amounts of the life-saving medication buprenorphine will save lives. According to up-to-date science, the illicit use of the medication leads to entering recovery and, we know that recovery saves lives. The additive risk of this measure is very small. Folks who choose to take illicit buprenorphine are primarily using it to stave off cravings and not use fentanyl-laced heroin. Fentanyl, heroin and oxycontin, in which the risk of overdose is high, are available at any time to our children and that will be true until we chose to reduce the demand by saving lives and embracing models that have worked across the world. Going after the supply will change nothing, because the drugs will keep coming until we reduce the demand. We know this because we have watched the war on drugs fail. The deaths of our children, loved ones, and neighbors has reached Vietnam War proportions: Every. Single. Year. And we read or hear about deaths every day. Every. Day. It is time to follow the science and let go of old failing policies created when we thought this was a moral failing instead of the disease we now know it is. It is the definition of insanity to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.

This legislative session must end with a new innovative approach to this major public health crisis. If not, another 100 or more people die this year and possibly next, while we wait.

It is time for our county and the entire state to fully embrace harm reduction and fight for the future of our children. In a recent trip to Washington, D.C. to lobby and take part in an action, I heard this line: "Don't be fooled by the fact that parents are burying their children one by one, 70,000 people a year, is mass graves. These are mass graves made up of our children." This was the first time I felt the statistic that my family members were part of. Last year my nephew was one of 70,000 of our children who lost their lives to this epidemic.

We cannot go another year of doing nothing while deaths rise. There is not a pat on the back deserved for the suffering that endures throughout the state. There is no glass half full version of the numbers of deaths that came out of 2018. Just ask anyone who buried their child, nephew, niece, sister, brother, friend, mother, father and so on. We don't ever get them back. Harm Reduction saves lives and it is time to embrace the systems that we know work and let go of the old strategies that are failing us. We must stop the "tide of bodies." H.162 is a good first step, absent that step being taken, it is on us to demand change in our counties.

Brenda Siegel is a former Democratic candidate for governor, founder and director of the Southern Vermont Dance Festival, vice chair of the Newfane Democratic Committee and delegate to the Windham County Democratic Committee. She is an anti-poverty activist and single mom from Newfane. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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