The state is tackling its heroin epidemic through public health efforts instead of a criminal justice crusade
Illustration by Tyler Hoehne
In an April exposé, Rolling Stone magazine called “bucolic” Vermont “the new face of heroin,” contrasting its wholesome maple-syrup-and-flannel image with a frightening epidemic afflicting small New England towns and snatching the souls of its young people.
The crisis was so severe that Governor Peter Shumlin made it the focus of his State of the State address in January, rattling off a list of daunting statistics:
In a single year, Vermont had seen a 40 percent increase in residents receiving treatment for heroin addiction. Over the same 12-month period, overdose deaths doubled between Burlington and Bradford. Vermont had been opening new treatment centers as quickly as its budget allowed, but in some areas, at any given time, the waiting list for addiction treatment could run as long as 500 people.
Shumlin told stories of high school students stealing their parents’ farming equipment to buy the heavily addictive drug and deceased college students’ ashes being spread over their favorite local skiing trails. But Shumlin, a Democrat, didn’t offer tough talk and military metaphors. Though he promised dealers would be dealt with harshly, his overarching tone was one of compassion.
“Addiction is, at its core, a chronic disease,” he said. “We must do for this disease what we do for cancer, diabetes, heart, and other chronic illness: first, aim for prevention, and then eradicate any disease that develops with aggressive treatment.”
In the months since then, Vermont has built a kinder, gentler blueprint for tackling the heroin epidemic. Bloomberg Businessweek announced last week, that Vermont had “quit the war on drugs to treat heroin abuse as a health issue.” Rather than locking up addicts, the state is attempting to provide them opiate replacement drugs like Methadone and Suboxone and place them in treatment. Even addicts who are currently incarcerated will have better access to prescription drugs to help kick the habit. Meanwhile, the state is pouring more money into opening and operating rehabilitation centers and increasing prevention efforts in medical offices and schools. Vermont, as the governor’s words promised, is treating heroin addiction like a disease, rather than a crime.
The state has also adopted policies aimed at “harm-reduction” for users—essentially strategies aimed at lowering the number of addicts who die from overdoses. EMTs and police officers in Vermont now carry Naloxone, a prescription drug that can reverse an opioid overdose. In addition, the state passed what’s called a “Good Samaritan law,” which protects those who report an overdose in progress from prosecution. These laws are gaining popularity in state governments nationwide, as more and more states are grappling with heroin crises of their own. Laws in 24 states have made Naloxone more widely available and 20 states have some kind of Good Samaritan law in place, according to Businessweek.
Part of the reason we’ve seen a more compassionate response to this particular drug epidemic may be because the associated demographics coming to light defy (usually specious) stereotypes about hardcore drug use. Growth in the use of heroin has been almost entirely among white Americans. And, as some sources have noted, young people living in suburban areas of the country have accounted for the majority of the increase.
Whatever the reason, Vermont’s approach is a stark contrast from the unsympathetic, tough-on-crime policies that sprung up during the urban crack epidemic in the 1980s. Prisons are already overcrowded and expensive to taxpayers, and incarcerating addicts is only likely to push them further into a life of crime. If Vermont’s efforts to treat addiction as a disease are successful, it could signal a new approach to drug policy in the U.S., and major progress toward reversing some of the unintended consequences of the “war on drugs.”