03.27.14

Leahy’s First Report To The Senate On Rutland Field Hg. On Heroin & Opioid Addiction --

To watch a recording of the hearing on Rutland Community Access Television, please click here.

Last week I had the privilege of chairing a field hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee in Rutland, Vermont.  The Committee received powerful testimony about community solutions to breaking the cycle of addiction to heroin and other opioids.  The hearing marked the fourth time in the past six years that the Judiciary Committee traveled to Vermont to explore issues related to drug abuse.  As in many states, opioid addiction has ripped through parts of Vermont.  Overdoses have reached record levels, while communities have struggled to keep pace with the demand for treatment.  Sadly, this story is not unique.  We are confronting a localized problem with regional echoes and national implications.  Some of what we face is similar to the addiction outbreaks in large cities, and other aspects are particular to rural areas. 

What struck me in Rutland last week is how Vermonters have worked together – and are continuing to work together – to get ahead of this problem, with innovative prevention, treatment, and law enforcement strategies. 

The City of Rutland has an important story to tell.  Its addiction crisis has received national attention.  But I brought the Judiciary Committee to Rutland not to explore the horrors the city once faced; rather, I wanted us to learn how the people of Rutland are reclaiming their community, block by block.  One effort that has shown great promise is Project VISION (Viable Initiatives and Solutions through Involvement of Neighborhoods), developed by city and community leaders to address the many issues related to opioid abuse – addiction and treatment, prevention, quality of life, and crime and safety issues. 

The Chief of the Rutland Police Department, James Baker, testified at the hearing.  Chief Baker explained that the police department for the first time is housing social workers, a domestic violence advocate, a mental health specialist, an early intervention coordinator, an Assistant Attorney General, a school resource officer, a crime analyst, and a building inspector.  All are working in concert toward one goal: “Not on our streets; not in our town.”  When Chief Baker asked how many in the audience were connected with Project VISION, over half of the standing-room-only audience raised their hands.  Project VISION has proven adept at pursuing emerging, community-driven strategies.  Just this week, community leaders and police in Rutland are considering implementing Drug Market Intervention.  This is a promising tactic designed to clear neighborhoods of nonviolent street-level dealers by bringing them in front of community leaders and giving them a stark choice: stop selling today, or go to jail tomorrow.  Rutland has clearly risen to the challenge of combatting heroin and opioid abuse.

Other witnesses at the hearing described communities in action, working together to find inventive and tailored solutions.  The United States Attorney for Vermont, Tristram Coffin, who has had remarkable success leading enforcement efforts in the State, described how he has taken the message of prevention to Vermont schools, partnering with the father of a young man who tragically died of a heroin overdose.  Dr. Harry Chen, the Vermont Department of Health Commissioner and a career emergency room physician, described what it means to recognize addiction as a public health issue, expanding access to prevention and treatment services to all corners of the state.  Mary Alice McKenzie, director of the Boys & Girls Club in Burlington, made clear how important it is to provide young people early and safe alternatives to drug use.  The Director of the Vermont State Police, Colonel Tom L’Esperance, described how state police will soon carry naloxone, a drug that immediately reverses the effects of a heroin overdose.  Addicts in Vermont now know that police are not just there to arrest, but to save lives.

It is important that the Judiciary Committee hear about a range of experiences, as opioid addiction has plagued communities large and small, rural and urban.  This is why I encouraged all Vermonters to submit testimony on strategies to curb addiction, which will be incorporated into the permanent record of the United States Senate.  The response was remarkable.  We received testimony from law enforcement officers, first responders, substance abuse counselors, doctors, public health officials, mental health practitioners, professors, school counselors and teachers, concerned parents, Governor Peter Shumlin – who is sharply focusing his administration on these problems – and many, many others. 

Taken together, the testimony submitted to the Committee offers a blueprint for communities ready to get ahead of addiction.  It is clear that success requires community investment.  Only after a community identifies addiction as a problem can it commit to defeating it.  This is where Vermont is ahead of the curve.  We tend to come from close-knit communities in Vermont.  When we hear about victims of overdoses, and concerns about a growing problem, nearly all Vermonters can name someone who is affected.  I suspect that is why we have had a number of excellent initiatives already enacted – it did not take long for heroin and opioid abuse to affect all Vermonters.  And it did not take long for Vermont to take steps to resolve the problem.  Nowhere is this more evident than in Rutland. 

It is equally clear from the submitted testimony that success requires close collaboration among prevention, treatment, and law enforcement efforts.  From my years as a Vermont prosecutor, I recall how important such collaboration is, but never have I seen a law enforcement community as committed to prevention and treatment efforts as I do now.  We know we cannot arrest our way out of this problem.  If the underlying cause of criminal behavior is an addiction, treatment is often a more humane and cost-effective alternative to arrests and prison. 

As we continue to review testimony submitted to the Committee, I look forward to working with other members of the Judiciary and Appropriations Committees to ensure that these community-driven responses receive the support necessary to succeed.  I will continue to work to fund youth mentoring and prevention organizations on the front lines, like the Boys & Girls Clubs, and I will continue to work to fully fund Byrne-JAG and COPS grants to enable law enforcement agencies to devote the necessary time and resources to develop durable solutions with community partners.  We also need to continue to support drug court and diversion models to substitute treatment for prison when appropriate.  Many programs funded through the Second Chance Act provide offenders a real opportunity to succeed once released from prison by ensuring they have the resources to become productive members of their community.

I also look forward to discussing effective law enforcement strategies and partnerships with Michele Leonhart, Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency, when she comes before the Judiciary Committee next month.

We all understand that the ability of the Federal Government to provide any assistance is increasingly challenged in light of our burgeoning prison population, which is largely driven by inflexible and unfair drug mandatory minimums.  Federal prison and detention costs have risen to account for nearly one-third of the budget for the Department of Justice.  This unsustainable growth in our prison costs siphons resources from other crucial law enforcement priorities every year.  It is vital that Congress pass our bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act, which would make modest reductions to mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses and help preserve funding for assistance to state and local law enforcement agencies and to victim services.

Addiction to heroin and other opioids is a community problem, demanding community solutions.  I can report that Vermonters have stepped up to this challenge.  Obstacles remain, but Vermont communities have rallied to develop lasting solutions and get ahead of addiction.  After seeing this commitment first-hand, I left Rutland hopeful.  And very proud.

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