Needed: A comprehensive effort to address substance abuse in Vermont

Vermont is in the midst of a drug abuse crisis. We are seeing alarming increases in drug-overdose related deaths, drug-related violent crimes like assault and robbery, and addiction to prescription painkillers. Against that backdrop, the Vermont Senate last week passed S.238 -- a bill that would give first- or second-time offenders found in possession of an ounce or less of marijuana the choice to either pay a fine or go through a court diversion program. That ounce of pot is enough for 30 marijuana cigarettes and is worth about $300 on the street, implying strongly that the person who carries it is either selling it, or has a serious drug use problem himself. Here's what S.238 boils down to. A police officer pulls over car over for a traffic violation. The driver is a known drug dealer, with a record as long as your arm. The officer finds just under an ounce of pot in the car. Under this law, he has no choice but to give the drug dealer the option of court diversion. This law is a step backward. I have asked law enforcement officers, student assistance professionals and our states attorneys to give me their assessment of the bill. I respect the work they all do and I am grateful for their service. Here's what I learned from them: Vermonts current policy and practice regarding marijuana possession are working. Marijuana possession is not a burden on law enforcement or our courts. But states attorneys need to keep the discretion they now have to prosecute each offender according to the circumstances of the case and profile of the offender. A states attorney is elected by the voters in a county and is accountable to them, not to the legislature. When pot possession is linked to a crime with victims, like assault or robbery, prosecutors need access to all the tools in their toolboxes. Taking tools away just isnt logical. S.238 would add to the burden on law enforcement and the courts, not reduce it. And what about the message this law would send to our children? Debby Haskins is the Director of the Association of Student Assistance Professionals of Vermont. When I asked for her thoughts, she told me some sobering facts. Marijuana is the number one drug for which youth under 18 years old enter substance abuse treatment. Vermont ranks #1 in the country for marijuana use by 18-25 year olds. 72% of people treated for marijuana abuse are younger than 25. Treatment costs the Vermont taxpayer $2.1 million a year. Debby says, In my twenty years experience in the substance abuse field, I have never met anyone who has begun their drug use with heroin, cocaine, oxycontin or other prescription drug. She adds that youngsters dont grasp the difference between decriminalizing pot and legalizing it. To them, S.238 says, Marijuana is okay. High profile, violent drug crimes have torn through several Vermont communities recently. I asked Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras and Barre Mayor Thomas Lauzon for their perspectives. They attest to the drug crisis in our state. Mayor Louras said, Since late last fall, the City of Rutland has been plagued by a spate of drug related violence. But this disturbing trend has not been confined to Rutland. Unfortunately, it has become endemic to the State of Vermont as a whole. In light of the heightened level of drug related crime throughout the state, and the culture of violence that comes along with it, the passage of S. 238 by the Vermont State Senate is troubling to say the least. Drug-related crime is straining our criminal justice and corrections systems. Addiction is draining families and communities. It strains social services, impacts employers and coworkers due to lost productivity and burdens our already overtaxed health care system. Early last week, I visited a metal fabrication company in the Northeast Kingdom where highly skilled workers earn good wages and enjoy great benefits. I was shocked when the plant manager told me that 7 out of 10 people who interview for jobs there fail the company's drug test. Last Friday, I learned that a Franklin County company sees the same rate of drug test failure among job seekers. The substance abuse crisis is threatening to destroy the quality of life we enjoy in these beautiful Green Mountains. That's why I am calling for a comprehensive review of the substance abuse problem in Vermont, and a consistent and focused awareness in the State House of the broad problem of substance abuse in Vermont. We know that education, deterrence and treatment of drug abuse are a big part of the solution. Drug abusers need compassion and help. S.238 is not helpful. Mayor Louras said, I implore to the State Legislature to leave this bill alone. It is not the right time to take this issue up when all public officials should be speaking with one voice that any illegal drug activity, and the criminal violence it brings, must be met head-on with force and unity. Mayor Chris Louras has asked for our help. I work for him. I work for the people of Rutland and all of Vermont who want an end to drug abuse, crime and violence. You can do your part by contacting your state representatives to let them know what you think about S.238 and Vermonts drug abuse crisis.

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