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Horowitz: Vermont Gives Nation a Wake-Up Call on Opiate Addiction

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Vermont is leading the way in addressing the nation's opiate addiction epidemic, now it's time for the rest of us to act.

Shelving the laundry list of policy initiatives on a broad variety of topics which usually characterize State of the State addresses, Governor Peter Shumlin (D-VT) devoted his entire speech this year to the growing and serious problem of addiction to opiate-based prescription drugs such as OxyContin and the related increase in addiction to one of the original opiates – heroin.

In remarks echoing well beyond Vermont’s borders and applicable today in all 50 states including Rhode Island and Massachusetts, Shumlin said, “In every corner of our state, heroin and opiate drug addiction threatens us. It threatens the safety that has always blessed our state. It is a crisis bubbling just beneath the surface that may be invisible to many, but is already highly visible to law enforcement, medical personnel, social service and addiction treatment providers, and too many Vermont families. It requires all of us to take action before the quality of life that we cherish so much is compromised."
This past Sunday Shumlin carried his message of the need for an all out proactive and comprehensive policy response to this major public health problem to a national audience, appearing as part of a three person panel on the topic on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos. During the 8 minute segment, The Vermont Governor aptly describes how the over-prescribing of prescription painkillers is the main cause of this new epidemic of opiate addiction: “And you know let's be honest about this, OxyContin and the other opiates that are now prescribed, approved by the FDA, lead folks to opiate addiction. Now in Vermont in much of the country, OxyContin on the street is more expensive than heroin. So folks move from FDA approved drugs to heroin. And then it's a lifelong battle, a lifelong addiction.”
Nationally, there was a dramatic rise in the number of prescriptions written for opioid pain relievers such as OxyContin and an even larger increase in the dosages given without accompanying safeguards and education. In 2009, 257 million prescriptions were written—a nearly 50% increase in just ten years. Further, dosages increased over roughly the same ten year period by more than 400%.
The belated recognition of this problem in the medical community, combined with some states and cities putting in place sensible restrictions, is beginning to slow the over-prescribing. Unfortunately, as Governor Shumlin accurately asserts many people who become addicted to prescription drugs, when they can no longer get their hands on them, switch to heroin. Heroin is widely available and inexpensive.
In Rhode Island, for example, the abuse of prescription pain relievers, while still high, is beginning to decline, according to a front page story on a step-up in drug overdoses in the Ocean State in this past Sunday’s Providence Journal by Felice J.Freyer and Lynn Arditi.
But as Freyer and Arditi report this decline has been accompanied by a rise in the use of heroin and other illegal street drugs. While Rhode Island moved from third in the nation in the non-medical use of prescription pain killers back to 9th, the use of heroin and other street drugs increased. Rhode Island has the dubious distinction of leading the country in the latest available yearly rankings (disclosure: among my clients are The Journey to Hope, Health and Healing, Inc, which owns and operates two Rhode Island methadone clinics and a New Jersey based private individual dedicated to adopting comprehensive prescription drug abuse legislation in that state),
More than 15,000 people now die each year from drug overdoses. Countless more have their dreams deferred and their lives ruined by drug addiction. Governor Shumlin is leading the way in Vermont by putting in place a comprehensive policy response including stepped-up public education, stricter law enforcement and expanded treatment. New York City and State are pioneering important prevention measures including better prescription monitoring and essential curbs on Doctors over-prescribing opiate-based painkillers. It is time for the rest of us to act.
Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.

Related Slideshow: Marijuana Use in the New England States

According to data collected by the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, New Englanders are among the nation's top marijuana users in the country.  See how the indivdual states compare in the slides below:

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6. Maine

Percent of respondents who used marijuana in the past year: 12.45%

National Rank: 13th most

Possession Laws: Decriminalized (2.5 ounces or less)

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5. Connecticut

Percent of respondents who used marijuana in the past year: 12.50%

National Rank: 12th most

Possession Laws: Decriminalized (less than 0.5 ounce)

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4. Massachusetts

Percent of respondents who used marijuana in the past year: 14.19%

National Rank: 5th most

Possession Laws: Decriminalized (1.0 ounce or less)

Prev Next

3. New Hampshire

Percent of respondents who used marijuana in the past year: 14.60%

National Rank: 4th most

Possession Laws: Medical Use Only

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2. Rhode Island

Percent of respondents who used marijuana in the past year: 14.85%

National Rank: 3rd most

Possession Laws: Decriminalized (1.0 ounce or less)

Prev Next

1. Vermont

Percent of respondents who used marijuana in the past year: 14.90%

National Rank: 2nd most

Possession Laws: Decriminalized (1.0 ounce or less)


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