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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Prevention Is Focus At Senate Hearing On Opiates

Taylor Dobbs
Mary-Alice Mackenzie, the executive director of Burlington's Boys & Girls Club testified as Vermont State Police Colonel Thomas L'Esperance listened in.

Leaders in Vermont’s continuing effort to rid the state of addiction to heroin and other opiates testified before Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. Peter Welch in a field hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“You cannot arrest your way out of this problem,” Leahy said in his opening remarks. It was a phrase repeated often by the five witnesses, who emphasized the importance of prevention and treatment in solving Vermont’s drug problem.

Rutland Police Chief James Baker said things took a turn for the better when the city stopped measuring the success of its efforts by the number of arrests or amount of drugs seized.

“The trouble with those metrics was that history clearly showed that arrests alone were not going to change the environment because it does not take into account the underlying social issues relating to drugs,” he said. “Not one of the underlying issues that are tied to addiction is under the control of the police.”

All five of the witnesses said community efforts to prevent addiction are a vital part of the solution.

Mary-Alice Mackenzie, the executive director of the Boys & Girls Club in Burlington, said prevention is vital, but emphasized the continued importance of law enforcement efforts.

“Coordinated and well-done law enforcement really, really matters,” she said. “Without them, we don’t have a chance.”

The Vermont State Police shows no sign of backing down. Col. Thomas L’Esperance, the head of the state police, said that “in the past two years alone, we have seen a 482 percent increase in the number of heroin investigations initiated by drug investigators and a 247 percent increase in the amount of heroin seized as a direct result of those investigations.”

Testifying along with Baker, Mackenzie and L'Esperance were Tris Coffin, the U.S. attorney for the district of Vermont and Vermont Health Commissioner Harry Chen. All five witnesses agreed that shrinking the demand for heroin in Vermont is equally or more important than reducing supply.

Mackenzie said Boys and Girls Clubs across Vermont asked the children and young adults that they work with how to approach the issue.

“They have told us: ‘If you talk to me in high school about drugs, it’s way too late,’” Mackenzie said. “’I smoked, or my friend smoked their first joint when they were eight, or they were nine, or they were 10.’ Pick a number. It’s incredibly young.”

Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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