Vermont is once again a state that is paving the way for new ways to help the opiate epidemic. A bill has been designed to curb the heroin and opiate epidemic by placing low-level offenders into treatment programs rather than jail. The bill will become law as soon as April, 2015 according to House and Senate negotiations held earlier this month.
The legislation will provide new tools and treatment options for the court system and prosecutors to help evaluate the risks and needs of each defendant individually. It will also provide pre-trial screening and treatment programs to suspects before they are arraigned. This is the time when most addicts will be open to treatment and are more willing to address their addiction problems.
This new legislation gives addicts the the option of rehabilitation rather than jail. This will lessen the amount of drug users in jail and will most likely help to reduce the “revolving door” effect. The “revolving door” effect is when addicts are arraigned for drug-related crimes. Many addicts spend a small amount of time in jail where there is little to no treatment. When they get released they find themselves back in jail a short time later for another drug-related crime. If the addict does not seek treatment, they will most likely keep getting arrested. This legislation is offering treatment where it is desperately needed. In addition to the option for treatment, new risk assessment tools are intended to help judges and prosecutors gather more information about each defendant when the judge is trying to determine if bail is warranted.
The bill has been a work in progress since January, 2014. Governor Peter Shumlin dedicated almost his entire State Address to highlighting what he called a growing opiate and heroin problem. The governor was quoted as calling it a “full-blown heroin crisis” in Vermont, which prompted National headlines and conversation about heroin abuse and addiction across the country.
Earlier this month the House and Senate passed similar versions that prompted negotiations. The Senate added tough new penalties for drug trafficking. They lowered the threshold for heroin possession to classify it as heroin trafficking. The House passed it's version with a later implementation date which senators said was too slow amidst the states rapid growing opiate problem. Those differences were soon resolved when the House accepted language that created longer prison terms for people caught smuggling heroin into Vermont to distribute. They also raised the amount of heroin that qualifies for an "enhanced crime" to one gram. Their goal is to help reduce the amount of heroin in the state with stiffer penalties for drug dealers.
Vermont's state government is once again staying vigilant in the way they are attacking the opiate epidemic. Creating new ways to fight the problem legally will impact many lives for the better. Most states do not offer treatment to those who desperately need it. Most addicts who commit drug-related crimes fall into a cycle of repeat offenses because they are unable to get the help they need. This bill will surely save many lives and will decrease repeat offenses. Hopefully more states will follow Vermont's lead in fighting the deadly opiate battle.