Shumlin keeps focus local on addiction
By Neal P. Goswami
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | January 12,2014
MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin’s State of the State address last week has drawn attention from national media outlets because of its singular focus on treating opiate abuse rather than locking up addicts.
The governor says, however, that he has no interest in leading a national conversation on the issue and hopes to remain focused on addressing the growing number of addicts in Vermont.
Shumlin offered sobering statistics to make his point. The state has seen a 770 percent increase in the demand for treatment of opiate addiction since 2000.
That includes a 250 percent increase in the demand for treatment of heroin. The greatest increase — 40 percent — has occurred in the past two years, Shumlin said.
The 34-minute speech called for a shift in thinking. Vermont, Shumlin said, must begin to treat addiction more like a chronic illness and focus on prevention and treatment. The traditional law-and-order tactics that Vermont and other states have utilized for years have failed, he said.
The message has drawn widespread support across the state from lawmakers, law enforcement personnel and even prosecutors, many of whom appeared alongside Shumlin at a press conference following the Wednesday address.
The unconventional message also caught the eye of the national media.
Network news programs noted the speech. The New York Times sent a reporter, who was in the House chamber Wednesday. The speech was the top story for a spell on the newspaper’s website.
And PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff had Shumlin on her program to discuss his new effort.
Despite the attention and a stage waiting to be seized, Shumlin said he isn’t interested in leading a national conversation.
“My singular goal is to have a Vermont conversation about opiate addiction and the need for us all to pitch in together to do much better than we’re doing. I have no interest in a national conversation,” he said in an interview Friday.
“I’m surprised, frankly, by the national interest in what we’re doing in Vermont,” he said. “But really my focus is trying to get this right and I don’t have all the answers.”
Shumlin said his plan to focus on treatment was created after speaking with Vermonters about the growing problem. He said the conversation — and the solutions — must continue to evolve, though.
“I’m not an expert on opiate addiction. I want to be very clear on that,” he said. “I try to listen to the Vermonters that are telling me about the challenge we are facing and the role I can play in helping us to get it right. But I have no expertise in opiate addiction.”
Shumlin Chief of Staff Liz Miller said the governor will appear Monday on NPR’s On Point, and may appear on other national programs. Most of the calls coming to the governor’s office are from regular Vermonters, though, not the media, according to Miller.
“As usual, we’ll try to accommodate what we can,” she said. “There’s a couple others that have contacted us and if we can fit them in we will.”
Shumlin, meanwhile, says he will continue leading a Vermont conversation.
“When I wake up in the morning, my job, and the job that I love to do and was elected to do, is make sure we’re addressing the challenges that Vermont’s facing. That’s really my interest and my job,” he said.