Opioid deaths in Vermont increased 38 percent in 2016 despite efforts by health, law enforcement and government officials to stem the crisis. Now, the city of Burlington has drafted 11 principles to guide its approach in dealing with the crisis. Thursday evening, the mayor hosted a public forum to encourage public input on the principles before they are presented to the city council.
The 11 draft principles begin with a statement that prescription opiods can be as dangerous as heroin and should be treated as such. Other statements of principle include: people struggling with opioid addiction need access to treatment without delay; and all institutions engaged in resolving the opioid crisis should embrace data collection, data sharing, analysis, and transparency.
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger says responding to the addiction crisis has become a major area of focus for the city. “We really are in this mess because of deep societal problems and we are going to need real cultural change to turn it around. We are going to need everyone, or many people at least, to think differently about their role as a patient, as parents, and as active members of the community. That is what it’s going to take to muster the effort necessary to finally turn the numbers in the right direction.”
Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo provided data that shows the opioid death rate in Vermont is 10 to 20 times the homicide rate, making it the greatest cause of primary accidental death. Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George talked about how her office is in a unique position to provide timely data on overdose deaths which could help officials respond quickly if there are new or more powerful opioids in the region. “Our office is by statute the only person that can release a body from a scene. And so we are called for every untimely death in Chittenden County. So we have a kind of unique position to get somewhat more real numbers and more quick numbers of the people that are dying from overdoses.”
During the question and answer period, there was a wide range of feedback. “My name is Alicia and I’m a person in long term recovery. And I just want everyone to see my face because the face of addiction isn’t anonymous so I don’t think the face of recovery should be. I think one thing that I just want to hear you talk more about or maybe just think about is the continuation of care beyond just MAT assisted therapy.”
One focus of comments was that the initiatives need more focus on children and families. Margo Austin said parents must discuss drug issues with their kids. “I’m a licensed alcohol and drug counselor and work as a student assistance program counselor. We know the number one thing that drives addiction is that brains are not developed until approximately 25 years of age. This is the number one battle to pick with you r kids. Do pick that battle. Don’t wait.”
Chief del Pozo talked about the importance of discussing drugs with children earlier in the evening. “Your kids are never too young to talk to about opioids. Kids are extremely intelligent. They understand mortality. They see people on the street struggling and they know that those people are going through something different. My son is 9 now, my older one. I’ve been talking to him about opioids since he was 7. Can I guarantee he’ll be immune to it? No. But I think that I’m building up a resistance.”
The last person who stepped up to the mic preferred to remain anonymous. She left the panel nearly speechless as she described how the opioid crisis impacts the greater community. “I was a victim of a situation in which a person who was high on opioids operating a vehicle hits my vehicle head on. He died. I have a passenger in my car that’s totally paralyzed. It’s a problem for the whole community because we are at risk. You never know who is going to be behind the wheel high. And we talked about how many people die of overdose and who’s getting help. But what about the people that are victims of this addiction?”
On April 4th Mayor Weinberger will host a discussion on the book Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opioid Epidemic. Author Sam Quinones will participate.