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Vermont gov. confronts deadly heroin crisis as public health problem

January 9, 2014 at 12:00 AM EST
Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted his entire State of the State address to a "full-blown heroin crisis" ravaging Vermont. Shumlin joins Judy Woodruff to discuss his shift in focus on the issue of opiate addiction and Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post offers context on why heroin has made a major comeback in the United States.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: A governor broke with tradition yesterday and devoted his entire state of the state address to drug addiction.

Peter Shumlin, the governor of Vermont, urged residents to open their eyes to the growing problem in their front yards, rather than leaving it only to law enforcement, medical personnel and addiction treatment providers. Shumlin argued the facts speak for themselves.

In Vermont, since 2000, there has been a 770 percent increase in treatment for all opiates. He stated: “What started as an OxyContin and prescription drug addiction problem in this state has now grown into a full-blown heroin crisis” and — quote — “Last year, we had nearly double the number of deaths in Vermont from heroin overdose as the previous year.”

It turns out Vermont is not the only state facing this crisis. According to the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, the number of deaths involving heroin surged 45 percent between 1999 and 2010.

For more on this, I’m joined by Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin and Huffington Post Washington bureau chief Ryan Grim. He’s also the author of the book “This Is Your Country on Drugs.”

And, gentlemen, we thank you both for being us.

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Governor, I’m going to start with you.

A full-blown heroin crisis, how serious is it?

GOV. PETER SHUMLIN, D-Vt.: Serious.

I mean, obviously, it’s no more serious than the other states around us. I think, I hope that the difference is that I’m willing to confront it and, as governor, take it on head on. And, listen, here’s the challenge. We have lost the war on drugs. The notion that we can arrest our way out of this problem is yesterday’s theory.

And, you know, the one thing Vermonters cherish is our quality of life, our safety, the fact that we’re a state where we take care of each other, and that we know that our communities are safe and that we have a good quality of life.

And this compromises it. So, as far as I’m concerned, this is one of the real battles that we’re facing that we have got to win. And we have got to do that by changing the discussion and changing the policy, so that we say that what heroin addicts and folks that are addicted to opiates are facing is a public health issue, not a crime issue. And we have got to be willing to fight it from that vantage point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And why did you decide to devote the entire, virtually the entire speech to this?

PETER SHUMLIN: Well, because I feel that strongly about it.

You know, really, this is the issue that nobody wants to talk about. Nobody. Governors don’t like talking about it because we’re afraid that when we move our policy from law enforcement, and the belief and the fantasy that you can beat this just with law enforcement, and, in fact, have to treat it with treatment and with services that will help folks move from addiction to recovery, that something will go wrong, and that therefore we don’t dare take any risk.

So I say the risk for Vermont, frankly, the risk for the other states around the country is, we have got more people dying from opiate addiction and from drug addiction than is killing us in automobiles…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

PETER SHUMLIN: … killing us with guns, killing us with all of the other things that we keep talking about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well…

PETER SHUMLIN: So let’s start facing this as the health crisis that it is and change our policies, so that we can start actually making progress and moving people from addiction to recovery.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Ryan Grim, as we heard the governor say, this is not just a problem in Vermont, not just in the Northeastern U.S. It is all over the country.

What — how much worse has it grown across the country?

RYAN GRIM, The Huffington Post: It’s gotten bad.

And you have two main things going on here, and they’re both going in the wrong directions, supply and demand. So, on the supply side, as a result of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, you have seen a surge in poppy production. And that heroin is going to go somewhere. It’s going to find a market. There is no question about it here.

It’s moved into Mexico and, up through Mexico, it’s come here. We have seen since 2008 even a fourfold increase in seizures at the Mexican border. On the demand side, there has been this intense decade-long crackdown on what they call pill mills, which has also targeted regular doctors and pharmacies who no longer want to do any business in dispensing narcotics to people who might legitimately need it.

That drives more business, legitimate business to these pill mills, which makes them get bigger. The feds then knock those down. And so then these people go out looking for something that they need. Whether these were legitimate addicts or what to begin with, they’re now addicts. They go out and find heroin, they are inexperienced users, and it is a terrible combination.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re talking about people who originally were looking for — many of them, not all of them — were looking for pain medication, not able to get it, turned to the illegal…

(CROSSTALK)

RYAN GRIM: Sure.

Many, many people who have had some type of injury, elderly people to people who are 18 years old and were hurt on the football field, they will get a prescription. Some of those people will become addicted. And if you don’t allow them access to these opiates, some of them, not all of them, a small percentage, are going to — they are going to turn to heroin, as it is cheaper and more available.

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Governor Shumlin, is there a profile — go ahead. What were you going to — I was going to ask if there is a profile of the person using.

PETER SHUMLIN: Well, just quickly answer that question. The answer is everybody.

We tend to live under the fantasy that we’re talking about folks who are only growing up in poverty and have no opportunity and no hope. Now, listen, that’s a problem. It definitely afflicts folks who have no opportunity and no hope.

But it also afflicts people who have huge opportunity and who are wealthy. So it crosses all economic lines. And what Ryan just said about the economics of this challenge, listen, right now, here’s how the economic works in Vermont. A bag of heroin can be bought for $6, $7 bucks, New York, Philadelphia, south — big cities south of us.

In Vermont, it sells for $20 or $30 a bag. So you can do the math. A short drive up the interstate, and you are going to see a huge profit. So the challenge we’re facing is that, as this did begin as an OxyContin and prescription drug crisis, now heroin is cheaper than OxyContin on the streets, and it’s frankly more available.

So that’s the challenge that I’m facing as a governor. Now, the question is, how do you deal with it? And the answer for me is, I have got people who are ready for treatment. The biggest challenge with opiate addicts, an opiate addict, a drug addict, they’re the best liars and the best deniers you’re ever going to meet.

But there is a window of opportunity, all the research suggests, where you can convince them that treatment is the best option. And it tends to be when they’re busted, when the blue lights are flashing and when you have an opportunity. Now, the problem with my judicial system and probably everyone in the country is that there is a huge gap between that moment of opportunity to talk them into treatment and the court process that it takes weeks or months to wind your way through.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me…

PETER SHUMLIN: So I’m changing the judicial process that I give my prosecutors and my judges a third-party independent assessment to go right in, right upon the bust and figure out, you know, who we should be mad at, disappointed in, and who we should be afraid of.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And let me bring Ryan back in here to ask you, Ryan, what is happening around the country in terms of — you just heard the governor say it can’t just be law enforcement. That’s part of it. It has to be prevention and treatment.

RYAN GRIM: Well, unfortunately, not a ton is happening.

I mean, there are a lot — there are some grassroots efforts going on. For instance, you know, Kentucky is starting to treat this in a much more humane way, because they’re seeing a similar problem as in Vermont. What you are seeing is in areas, poor, rural areas particularly, where Oxy was a big problem, that’s where you’re seeing this heroin surge, more than other places.

You’re also seeing it in some of the urban areas in this country. But it’s more of a rural problem. But, overwhelmingly, the rhetoric around the war on drugs is still very militaristic. And there is an attitude…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just that we’re at war.

RYAN GRIM: That if we can — right, exactly, if we can — we’re going to stop this at the border, we’re’ going to lock people up, we’re going to shut down these cartels.

And we have been doing this for close to a century now, and it just hasn’t worked.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Governor, I hear you saying that the treatment side, getting these people into treatment, preventing it in the first place has to become a huge focus.

PETER SHUMLIN: We have got to change our thinking about this disease. It is no different than cancer. It is no different than kidney disease.

When you’re sick and you want treatment, you have got to have it available to you. And that’s what I am going to make possible. And you then need a judicial system that moves you into that treatment right away, monitors your progress and, if you succeed, keeps you out of the criminal justice system altogether.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we would like to end on as positive a note as we can, but it is a tough story.

Gov. Peter Shumlin of Vermont, thank you.

Ryan Grim, we thank you very much.

RYAN GRIM: Thank you.