Vt. Seeks Solution to Opiate Epidemic

Recovering addict Raina Lowell speaks in the House Chamber during a forum on opiate addiction Monday, June 16, 2014, at the State House in Montpelier, Vt. The daylong event, sponsored by the Health Department and United Way of Vermont, was held to share ideas and to find ways to combat addiction. (AP Photo/The Times Argus, Stefan Hard)

Recovering addict Raina Lowell speaks in the House Chamber during a forum on opiate addiction Monday, June 16, 2014, at the State House in Montpelier, Vt. The daylong event, sponsored by the Health Department and United Way of Vermont, was held to share ideas and to find ways to combat addiction. (AP Photo/The Times Argus, Stefan Hard)

Montpelier — More than 150 activists and officials filled the House chamber of the State Capitol Monday for a community forum on opiate addiction. The emotional peak of the event came as the attendees listened to accounts of lives ravaged by addiction.

“Being an addict does define you,” said Raina Lowell, a mother of two who lives in Montpelier. “Being an addict in recovery tells you pretty much everything you need to know about me.”

And the judgments that flow from that knowledge are dark, according to Lowell. “It’s not easy to love an addict,” she said. “It can seem like all we ever do is (seek) to get what we want and all we care about is ourselves.”

Those words seemed strange coming from Lowell, whose appearance and confident tone offered no evidence of a disease that had once reduced her to a “human being stuck inside the shell of an addict.”

But before her recovery began, she said, “my addiction owned me, mind, body and soul.”

Lowell said she decided to speak about her illness “for every addict out there who is still suffering today.” Sharing her story, she added, helped her “feel that the journey that I’m on has purpose.”

Lowell was not alone in her suffering.

“We have a crisis in our state,” said Harry Chen, a former emergency room physician who is commissioner of the state Health Department.

Gov. Peter Shumlin said that the roots of that crisis could be laid at the doorstep of lax federal regulators: “When the (Food and Drug Administration) approved OxyContin and we started putting it out with what can only be described as irrational exuberance, a lot of people got addicted.”

Mark McGovern, a professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine, said that Vermont had become the “poster state” for the opiate addiction problem.

About one in eight Vermonters age 18 to 25 acknowledged non-medical use of a prescription pain reliever during the previous 12 months, according to a 2012 survey on drug use and health by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

But the problem has spread, Chen said: “Heroin is now cheaper and easier to get than prescription painkillers.”

Rutland Police Chief James Baker said that a single bust by his department in 2012 seized 8,000 bags of heroin and $90,000 in cash.

Drug use has led to abuse and dependence, according to the SAMSHA survey. More than one in 10 Vermonters aged 18 to 25 reported that they had abused, or used an illicit drug and then missed work or drove under the influence, for example, while nearly one in 12 said that their drug use had reached the level of dependence, at which, for example, stopping would cause the user to experience withdrawal symptoms.

But the state, if it enables and coordinates local efforts, can turn back the tide of addiction, Chen said. “The good news is that we can do this,” he said. “Everyone here has a part to play.”

Those parts will vary, warned Chris Louras, the mayor of Rutland, which the Shumlin administration has held up as a model of municipal efforts to counter the opiate flood: “Each community is going to have to find their own collaborative and holistic strategy.”

Some Upper Valley leaders seemed ready to roll up their sleeves.

Scott Farnsworth, director of guidance and counseling services for the Hartford school district, said that the forum showed the need to “bring people together and talk honestly about what’s going on in the community.”

Hartford Selectman Ken Parker agreed that the forum showed the need to return to the Upper Valley and “wrap more people into the conversation” about how to address the problem of opiate abuse.

In a turn of phrase that evoked nervous chuckles from a few of his listeners, Shumlin, who is scheduled to opiate related bills into law today, promised that his administration would give a boost to municipal efforts. The state, he said, would develop “a blueprint of things that are working well and put them on steroids.”

But Louras warned that bringing together communities would entail taking on politicians who were “Neanderthals like I used to be, who thought it was all about enforcement.”

Baker, the Rutland police chief, urged local leaders not to reduce the opiate problem to a single dimension. “It’s all hands on deck,” he said. Countering the opiate problem “requires that approach to be successful.”

Farnsworth said that he sees “15-, 16-, 17-year-olds who are living on the edge of life and death” in the Upper Valley. “Part of what’s missing today,” he added, was “the kids’ voices.”

But there were echoes. Pat Martin, a founder of Wit’s End, a support group for families of addicts, recalled his reaction 15 years ago when a Rutland police officer knocked on his family’s door to inform them that their 19-year-old daughter was dead after a dose of nearly pure heroin overwhelmed her 100-pound body: “We fell to our knees and we were numb for days and weeks and months.”

Rick Jurgens can be reached at rjurgens@vnews.com or 603-727-3229.