Most governors use State of the State messages to make ambitious — and often quickly forgotten — promises on budgets and taxes. But in Vermont, Governor Peter Shumlin used his entire annual address Wednesday to implore citizens to “stop quietly averting our eyes from the growing heroin addiction in our front yards.” In a sparsely populated state known for rolling pastures and iconic brands of butter and ice cream, Shumlin lifted the veil on a “full-blown” crisis. The state has seen a 250 percent increase in heroin treatment since 2000, twice the number of deaths from heroin overdoses last year compared with the year before, and five times more federal indictments against heroin dealers than in 2010.
Shumlin said drug dealers exploit Vermont’s proximity to Boston and New York and the economics of rural scarcity to sell more than $2 million of heroin a week, at prices up to five times higher than in big cities. “That means that a heroin habit in Vermont can cost an addict tens of thousands of dollars per year,” Shumlin said, “and that’s before they put a roof over their head, food on the table, or sneakers on the kids.”
Shumlin’s speech was a reminder of how drugs are an all-American problem. According to federal data, heroin use cuts across race, educational attainment, and employment status. Echoing the cries of urban African-American and Latino activists, Shumlin declared, “Today, our state government spends more to imprison Vermonters than we do to support our colleges and universities.” Shumlin wants Vermont to expand drug treatment, mental health services, and intervention programs for users, while imposing tougher punishments for high-volume dealers. The governor’s bold speech should resonate not only with the Vermont legislature, but with leaders of other rural states and communities just waking up to the drug crisis.