Courts & Corrections

Burlington mayor chides lawmakers for not addressing opiate crisis ‘with sufficient urgency’

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger addresses residents at a town hall meeting on opiate addiction. Photo by Morgan True / VTDigger

BURLINGTON — More than 100 people crowded into Contois Auditorium at City Hall for a town hall meeting Thursday evening on the opiate addiction crisis facing the region.

Mayor Miro Weinberger said that despite diligent and well-intentioned efforts from a broad array of stakeholders, opiate addiction continues to tear apart families, drive crime and take lives at an unprecedented rate in Vermont.

He said that while Vermont has made progress toward treatment on demand, there are still nearly 200 people — mostly in Chittenden County — on a waitlist for a medication assisted treatment program. The mayor chided the Legislature for not doing enough to address what he said is one of the state’s most pressing problems.

“So far, the Legislature is not treating this with sufficient urgency this session,” he said.

Rep. Selene Colburn, P-Burlington, who has served on the Burlington City Council, echoed that sentiment. As a freshman lawmaker, she said she assumed she’d have to elbow her way into a position to address the opiate crisis. That’s not been the case, she said. Instead, a number of bills she has introduced relating to opiate addiction have languished after introduction.

“It’s been discouraging frankly,” she said.

Weinberger outlined efforts that the city has undertaken, with help from the state, social service and medical providers that have ramped up in the 18 months since he asked Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo to take a greater role in those efforts.

The mayor and other officials said they are committed to gathering and sharing data and best practices across agencies and organizations to reach better outcomes for drug users and the community. They also pledged to be transparent in the process by making data public.

Residents peppered officials with questions and shared personal stories.

“I just wanted everyone to see my face, because the face of addiction isn’t anonymous and the face of recovery shouldn’t be either,” said Alicia Sherman.

Sherman said she was living in Rutland and in the fog of addiction when someone convinced her to enter a residential treatment program in Worcester, Massachusetts.

There, Sherman contracted the infection MRSA and was forced to spend three months in the hospital. That illness was a blessing, she said, because she returned to Vermont with a head start on sobriety. She has been sober in the three and a half years since.

A relapse would have been inevitable, Sherman said, if she hadn’t received help from a sober living home for women and the Turning Point Center, a recovery program with 12 community centers across the state.

Sherman wanted to know what is being done “beyond just (medication assisted treatment) therapy” to help people stay in long-term recovery.

Weinberger said Sherman raised a question that officials are “just starting to grapple with.” Dr. Stephen Leffler, chief medical officer at the UVM Medical Center, said medication should only be one component of a broader response.

That response needs to include counseling, access to housing and job opportunities, because if people aren’t able to become productive members of society, it will be difficult to shake the parts of their life that led them to addiction, Leffler said.

Sandi Omanovic said that working as a private investigator, he frequently saw up close how addiction wreaked havoc on families, landing a growing number of children in state custody.

Omanovic said there will undoubtedly be a “future cost” to the trauma those children endure. He wanted to know how officials are preparing for that?

Weinberger said representatives from the Department for Children and Families involved in the city-led data sharing effort who are getting “actionable real time information” from other stakeholders.

Leffler said research shows children who experience trauma are at greater risk for a wide array of challenges later in life, but there is also a growing body of research, some of which is being conducted at UVM, that shows early interventions, especially therapy, can change a child’s prospects.

Jess Kell, an audience member who works at the Lund Family Center, encouraged officials to take a more “family-centered” approach to treatment in some cases.

Kell said for addicted mothers, a lack of child care options can be a barrier to treatment, while others are scared to ask for help for fear that admitting they have problem could result in losing custody.

Another woman, who declined to give her name, said she was in a head-on collision with someone who was high on opiates. The driver died at the scene, while a passenger in his car was revived with naloxone, a drug that reverses opiate overdoses. A passenger in her car was paralyzed as a result of the accident.

“I’ve been fighting this guilt that, I guess, this guy died,” she said. “Did I kill him? No I tried to prevent myself from hitting his car, but there was nothing I could do.

“I think every day could I have done something different? But I know it’s not my fault that this guy had a disease and the drive to get the drugs, so that he didn’t care about anyone else,” she said.

Once someone has been revived with naloxone once or twice, they should be forced into drug treatment, she said.

Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo said her story raised an interesting paradox in the way Vermont has responded to the opiate epidemic.

While the state treats addiction as a disease, there is “great reluctance to do forced emergency interventions” for drug addicts.

Del Pozo said his officers administer naloxone, but there is no requirement that addicts go into treatment afterward.

“We want to save these lives, and get (naloxone) out there, and I think we need a little more authority to do so,” he said. “We’re powerless, powerless to intervene on their behalf.”

Safe injection sites

Rep. Colburn said there is another way to connect drug users with treatment services.

Colburn introduced legislation that would allow safe injection sites in Vermont. The bill, H.108, is unlikely to move this session, but it has helped to raise the profile of safe injection sites in the state.

The sites would give people with drug addiction a safe place to use street drugs under medical supervision without fear of arrest.

Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George is forming a commission comprised of law enforcement officials and drug treatement workers to study the idea. In a statement Thursday, George said she isn’t taking a position on safe injection spaces. She wants the commission to have an “open and honest” discussion about whether the safe sites would be a good way to fight the opioid crisis.

Officials in Seattle, Washington, approved two safe injection sites earlier this year, which would be the first in the United States. Vancouver, British Columbia has had safe injection sites since 2003.

Colburn said there are roughly 100 such programs around the world, and research shows they’re an effective way increase public safety and connect drug users to support services.

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