US Senate committee takes testimony on drug crime

By:  John Curran
Vermont Associated Press

Strapped by shrinking budgets, state and local officials told members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday they need Uncle Sam's help now more than ever in combatting drug crime.

The panel _ represented by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island _ took testimony from national drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the Vermont State Police, Barre Mayor Thomas Lauzon and three other people with varying perspectives on the problem.

Illicit drug use overall is less prevalent in rural areas than in cities and suburbs, but young people in rural areas have higher rates of use for methamphetamine, prescription painkillers and alcohol than do their urban counterparts, according to Kerlikowske, a former police chief who now heads the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Federal support, in the form of $1 million annual appropriations for a Vermont Drug Task Force and a separate $1.3 million allotment for 14 Drug Free Communities Act coalitions in the state, has helped, he told the senators.

Prevention and treatment are a smarter way for government to address the problem than enforcement and punishment, Lauzon said.

"As the fastest aging state in the nation, Vermont cannot afford to lose the unrealized potential of young lives to drug addiction and drug-related crimes. With increasing demands on our resources, we cannot afford policies that are not proactive," he said.

Col. Thomas L'Esperance, the head of the Vermont State Police, said the federally funded Vermont Drug Task Force has broken up drug rings in St. Albans, Rutland and Barre. The federal support is key, he said, since "state, local and county funding has dried up."

The final witness at the hearing was a woman identified on the agenda as "Susan" _ even though that isn't her real name _ who told the panel she started drinking and using drugs at 17 and ended up in prison after three drunken-driving convictions, the first of which happened when she was 19. She has since turned her life around, she said.

Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat who formerly served as that state's attorney general, said the panel helped give a broad cross-section of perspectives on the topic.

The hearing, held on the basketball court of the Barre City Auditorium, drew about 200 people, including several busloads of high school students from Barre and Montpelier who sat in the bleachers, listening quietly.

Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who is running for re-election, hosted similar hearings in 2008 in Rutland and St. Albans.