Vermont governor declares new ‘War on Drugs,’ but pumps up old bureaucracy

By Yaël Ossowski |

Vermont is knee-deep in a crisis of epic proportions, Gov. Peter Shumlin declared in his State of the State speech Wednesday. He’s determined to end it.

“The crisis I am talking about is the rising tide of drug addiction and drug-related crime spreading across Vermont,” pronounced Shumlin.

“In every corner of our state, heroin and opiate drug addiction threatens us … it threatens the safety that has always blessed our state,” he said. “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.”

The governor upped the ante on his diagnosis of Vermont’s dire straits by promising an additional $1 million for additional support of drug treatment and recovery, on top of the already $8 million allocated in the budget from last year.

That money, along with the $10 million in promised federal funds from President Obama’s “Now is the Time” Initiative, formed in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting in Dec. 2012, will bring substance abuse and mental health funding in Vermont to an all-time high.

But before the governor declares mission accomplished, he’ll have to demonstrate to Vermonters how the money will be properly spent.

The state spent nearly $30 million combating alcohol and drug abuse in 2013, and the problems have only mounted in the governor’s second term.

By the governor’s own admission, nearly 80 percent of Vermont’s prison population faces a problem with addiction, and the state’s treatment centers haven’t been effective in meeting demand and solving problems of those affected in rural communities.

Instead of vying for new ideas, Shumlin is scrambling to the federal government for help.

According to the latest 2014 budget request set to be passed in the new Legislature, over $36 million of Vermont Department of Health’s funding is expected to come from the federal government — totaling nearly 50 percent. And that money could soon see its end if a new bill makes its way to the president’s desk.

U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Penn, is pushing his version of reform in this area with the intention of completely overhauling federal standards and programs and mandating more money go directly to states with strings attached and a more rigorous standard of oversight.

This would rid the confusion often caused by the overlap of federal and state programs in substance abuse and mental health, according to supporters of Murphy’s plan, who cite current overlap and poor oversight leads bad practices to maintain unconditional support without scrutiny.

E. Fuller Torrey, executive director of the Stanley Medical Research Institute and expert on schizophrenia, believes relying on federal grants and standards is exactly the problem in current mental health and addiction programs.

Specifically, he points to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which he deems “bureaucratic insanity,” especially since it provides over $3 billion in grants to state agencies and programs but offer no amount of accountability for the money spent. This is the agency Shumlin is relying on to gain access to federal money for Vermont substance abuse programs.

“Theoretically, SAMHSA is supposed to provide oversight for these funds, but in fact little oversight occurs,” writes Torrey in a National Review op-ed. He noted that only two employees in the entire administration have any relevant medical degree.

“It employs 537 people, who have an average salary of $107,760; almost three-quarters have jobs rated a 13 or higher on the General Schedule, meaning their salaries start above $70,000,” said Torrey.

The government’s new approach, however, does offer more level-headed action than in the past.

In this sense, the governor seems to have taken advice from Vermont Chief Justice Paul Reiber, now deemed the state’s biggest critic of the government’s crackdown on marijuana use.

“If the idea is law enforcement alone will slow and eventually eliminate drug use altogether, that isn’t going to happen … The criminal justice system can’t solve the drug problem,” Reiber told Seven Days Magazine last month.

Attempts to reach a spokesperson at the Vermont Department of Health were unsuccessful.

Yaël is a national reporter for Reach him by email and follow him @YaelOss.

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