MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin announced a set of sweeping initiatives to address drug addiction during today’s State of the State address to the Vermont Legislature.

The governor’s remarks elicited support from Franklin County residents involved in the fight against rampant opiate addiction in the state. Some of those commenting today appear in a widely heralded documentary film that the governor wants shown in every state high school.

Addiction and drug-related crime are a growing threat to Vermont’s progress and quality of life, the governor said. He suggested a plan that offers: more than $1.5 million in state funds for drug use prevention and treatment; $2 million to address poverty issues connected to drug abuse; and dedication of millions in federal funds to the cause.

For decades, Vermont and the nation have primarily conducted the war on drugs through the criminal process. Now, working with law enforcement, the courts, prosecutors and defenders, and many others, the governor said it’s time to treat addiction for what it is: a serious, life-threatening health care issue.

Shumlin argued it is critical to continue to punish drug dealers who deliberately ensnare youth in addiction for their own financial gain, while also expanding prevention and treatment options. Treatment, in the governor’s view, can make it possible for addicts to recover and lead productive lives.

To address the drug problem, Shumlin asked the Legislature to make the following investments in drug treatment:

• $200,000 to expand staffing and space at backlogged treatment centers, primarily in Chittenden County, the Northeast Kingdom and Central Vermont. The goal is to eliminate that waiting list and ensure treatment services are immediately available to every Vermonter in need, in addition to the more than $8 million in ongoing funding for treatment and recovery that will be in the FY 2015 budget.

• $650,000 for substance abuse and mental health treatment services for Reach Up recipients, a figure that jumps to more than $1 million when matched with federal funding.

• Using a $10 million federal grant over 5 years awarded this past summer to help medical providers intervene earlier with patients who are beginning to experience problems due to their substance abuse.

• $760,000 to implement evidence-based assessments and pre-trial services statewide to move addicted Vermonters who have committed certain crimes to support their habits into treatment when appropriate. The funding will state’s attorneys to create intervention programs for those arrested, and will allow judges to review assessments and set conditions before trial that include treatment where appropriate.  In both situations, resources to hold defendants accountable will be a key component.

Local reaction

Dr. Fred Holmes, a retired local pediatrician who has become known throughout the state for his work with addicted patients, particularly the young, was invited to attend today’s address. “Obviously, I think it’s a very important next step,” Holmes said of the proposed investments in treatment.

Dustin Machia of Swanton, one of the people featured in “The Hungry Heart,” a documentary film about addiction, told the Messenger this morning that when a person is ready for treatment it’s crucial a bed is available. When someone has to wait two or three weeks for treatment, they often change their minds, because whatever crisis drove them to seek treatment has passed.

Machia also supports making treatment mandatory for those who commit drug-related crimes, suggesting the treatment may need to be longer than the typical three weeks in a residential facility.

Increased access to treatment also may help prevent drug related crimes, Machia suggested, but getting people help before they begin committing crimes to support their drug habit.

Holmes has been traveling around the state with documentary filmmaker Bess O’Brien to screenings of the “The Hungry Heart,” the film O’Brien directed about addiction that features several of Holmes’ patients.

Treatment options vary widely across the state, according to Holmes, as does each community’s needs.

“Vermont’s a very disparate community, as a whole,” said Holmes, with each community having a different culture and a different understanding of addiction.

The governor is also proposing putting more resources into supporting families and individuals who are struggling financially or in other ways.

The state recently received a $37 million federal Race to the Top education grant to expand access to pre-K education. Part of those funds will be used to provide services to children and families “to give parents and children the skills needed to succeed and resist the pull of illegal substances,” according to the governor’s office.

“As an ex-baby doctor, I think the concept of getting resources available to families with young children is critical,” said Holmes. When families are struggling with shelter, transportation and food, stress is placed on everyone in the family, including children.

The governor is also asking for $2 million more to provide housing subsidies and other supports for low income Vermonters.

Beating addiction is much more difficult for people with limited resources, according to Machia. “I was lucky. I had people there and material resources there,” he said.

His parents made it clear that if he wanted to inherit the Sheldon family farm, he needed to beat his addiction. “I had more important things in life than getting high,” said Machia.

However, he has worked with other addicted people who don’t have those advantages and it is a greater struggle for them, said Machia. He recounted suggesting treatment to someone recently who responded, “Why?”

The young man with whom he was speaking saw no reason to seek treatment because he had no hope of having a better life, explained Machia. He added that when their parents and grandparents have spent their lives mired in poverty, it’s hard for people to believe their lives can be any better.

St. Albans City Mayor Liz Gamache was to speak at a press conference following the speech about the importance of economic development in addressing addiction. Economic development, she suggested, can provide both jobs and hope to those struggling with addiction.

Bill Young, director of the Maple Leaf Farm residential treatment facility, previously told the Messenger that having a safe place to live when leaving treatment is essential in helping people remain free of addiction.

The governor is also proposing using $20,000 to bring the cast of “The Hungry Heart” to every high school in the state.

Machia supports the move. “When I was in school it didn’t get talked about a whole lot,” he said of addiction.

By seeing the film and talking with its subjects, maybe youth “can have a picture in their head of what that can do to you” when they are offered an opportunity to try drugs, Machia suggested.

“It is an excellent idea,” Holmes said of the proposal to bring the cast of the film to every high school.

The cast has already visited several middle and high schools, with varying responses. In Danville, the 400 students watched the film. “They were motionless,” said Holmes. “They absolutely did not move.”

Following the film, they asked insightful questions, he said. In other schools, it has been harder to capture the attention of students, Holmes said.

The staff at Georgia Elementary and Middle School had one of the best responses to the film he’s experienced, said Holmes. They went to the heart of the matter, asking how they can identify struggling kids and assist them before they become addicted.

“The heart of the movie is about supporting kids and families so addiction doesn’t become part of their lives,” said Holmes.

The governor has made some proposals for addressing law enforcement as well including giving judges the option of giving longer sentences to drug dealers from out of state and real-time mapping of drug sales and criminal activity.

“Vermont needs all of us, together, to drive toward our goal of recovery by working creatively, relentlessly, and without division,” said Shumlin. “I am heartened by the tremendously dedicated leaders we have statewide to help.”

The problem

According to information cited by the governor, since 2000, there has been a 771 percent increase in the number of Vermonters seeking treatment for opiate addiction. The increase for heroin alone is 260 percent, with an increase of nearly 30 percent in the past year.

Deaths related to heroin and opioid use are also increasing, with nearly as many deaths between January and July of 2013 as in all of 2012.

The number of people being prosecuted for drug dealing has also increased. In 2013, the number of federal indictments for heroin dealing doubled, said Shumlin.