Former Gov. Peter Shumlin: The Opioid Crisis Is 'An Easy Problem To Solve'

Jan 7, 2019

Five years ago this week, then-Gov. Peter Shumlin dedicated his entire State of the State speech to the issue of what he called "drug addiction and drug-related crime" in Vermont. That speech made national headlines and elevated public awareness of what's become known as the opioid crisis.

Listen to or read Shumlin's full 2014 speech here.

So five years later, is Vermont and the country where Shumlin thought we'd be when it comes to the issue of opioid addiction?

"No, to be honest," he said in an interview with VPR.

Shumlin pointed to some positives: improvements in access to treatment, how addiction is treated in the criminal justice system and the distribution of drugs like naloxone, which is used to reverse an overdose. But he said he's dismayed by what's happening nationally.

Former Gov. Shumlin spoke to VPR's Henry Epp. Listen to their conversation above. Here are some excerpts from the interview:

On What Shumlin Sees As A Solution To The Opioid Crisis:

"The problem with politicians is they all talk about treatment, they talk about prevention, they talk about criminal justice reform — none of them will actually solve the problem," Shumlin said. "What I keep saying, what makes me so both heartbroken and angry, is that this is an easy problem to solve."

Shumlin said because many people with opioid addiction begin with prescription painkillers like OxyContin, he believes severely limiting who can obtain that drug would "solve a huge problem that's killing a lot of people."

"If I were the head of the FDA, I'd say: 'Listen, you can use OxyContin for chronic disease, for hospice care. You can use OxyContin for chronic pain, but we do not pass out OxyContin for everything else,'" Shumlin said.

"If we stopped selling OxyContin ... in every drugstore, passing it out as we do, we wouldn't have this addiction problem." — Former Gov. Peter Shumlin

Why He Chose To Dedicate His 2014 State Of The State To Addiction:

"I just had so many folks coming up to me saying, 'Listen, I want to tell you about my grandkids. I've got them now because our daughter is addicted.' You know, 'I want to tell you about my son. I want to tell you about the loss in our family. I want to tell you what this is doing to destroy us,'" Shumlin said.

"I went back to my team and I said, 'Listen, there's something going on in the state that is just tragic. It's heartbreaking and we're all turning the other way. And I think I have a duty as a governor to stand up and say, you know, this is killing lots of really good people.'

"This is an avoidable problem — we can fix this together. But we can't unless we acknowledge it from the top on down and change the discrimination about the disease, change the pre-existing attitudes that we all have and say, 'This is no different than any other disease.' The only difference between this disease and others is that it's avoidable. If we stopped selling OxyContin ... in every drugstore, passing it out as we do, we wouldn't have this addiction problem."

Then-Gov. Peter Shumlin delivers his State of the State address before those gathered at the Vermont Statehouse on Jan. 8, 2014.
Credit Andy Duback / Associated Press File

 On The Response To His Speech:

"A lot of people said, 'You should have talked about other things, you should have talked about jobs, you should have talked about this or that.' But the Legislature leadership and everyone else came together and said, 'Hey, how do we put together a package that helps to begin to set us on the right course,' to at least ... getting rid of the waiting lists in treatment, treating it like it's some terrible thing that you have a treatment center."

"You know, when I originally spoke about this, I said in a speech, you know, we're perfectly happy to avert our eyes to addiction on Main Street while we fight and fear treatment centers in our back streets. And that's what was happening then. Now, you know, most communities have treatment centers and it's no different than frankly any other medical facility in their community. That's huge progress."

This is the first in a series of interviews airing on VPR this week to mark the five-year anniversary of Shumlin's State of the State speech on addiction. Check here for more stories throughout the week.