Congressional hearing focuses on opiate solutions - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Congressional hearing focuses on opiate solutions

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Senator Patrick Leahy was joined by Congressman Peter Welch for the third field hearing of its kind on Vermont's opiate problem.  Monday's topic: community solutions to breaking the cycle of addiction. They heard from a panel of witnesses representing the legal system, law enforcement, health care and children.   All said the growing addiction problem is a threat to Vermont and will take an army of resources to combat the problem.

It was a chance for those on the front lines of addiction to talk about the problem and the solutions. "The numbers and statistics are stark -- between 2006 and 2010 heroin overdose deaths increased nationally by 45 percent. Heroin treatment numbers in Vermont are up over 250 percent since 2000; up 40 percent in the past year," said Tristram Coffin, the U.S. Attorney for Vermont.

It is a problem this panel agrees that cannot be left to law enforcement alone. "Arrests alone were not going to change the environment because it does not take into account the underlying social issues relating to drugs. Not one of the underlying issues that are tied to addiction is under the control of the police," said Rutland Police Chief James Baker.

Rutland has taken an all-hands-on-deck approach to its addiction problem and created Project Vision. The program involves multiple community agencies with the goal of prevention, treatment and enforcement. Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen says addiction should be treated as a public health problem and a chronic illness -- like heart disease and diabetes. "Addiction results from bad decisions; those bad decisions quickly move to a disease. The end result is a chronic medical condition with profound implications for the individual and society," he said.

But perhaps the most chilling testimony came from Mary Alice McKenzie, Executive Director of the Boys & Girls Club of Burlington. "We made more reports to DCF about children being severely neglected because there was no food in the home, because there was no money left for food to feed these children," she said.

The Boys & Girls Club has been surveying the kids they serve from ages 5 to 19. What they are saying, she hopes, will help the state to create strategies  to stop addiction before it begins. "They have told us, if you talk to me in high school about drugs -- it's way too late. I smoked or my friends smoked their first joint when they were 8, 9,10' -- you pick a number. It's shockingly young," McKenzie said.

Vermont State Police Col. Thomas L'Esperance says the focus should now be on solutions to the problem of opiate addiction, and it will take all segments of a community to accomplish that goal. "From a statewide perspective, we must combine all our efforts and resources to reduce those abusing opiates and get treatment and stop the flow of heroin and stop another Vermonter from heading down the road to addiction," he said.

Monday's testimony will become part of the congressional record -- used in the future perhaps to increase funding or create legislation to support communities across the country in the battle against heroin and opiate addiction.

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