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Forum on Opiates 6/20/19

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A public forum of the opioid crisis held at the Brattleboro Central Fire Station on June 20, 2019. The forum was hosted by the BFD and Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and will feature panelists from the hospital, Project Care, Turning Point, Groundworks, the Brattleboro Retreat and the New England High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program.

Forum on opioids draws large crowdBy Susan Smallheer, Brattleboro Reformer

BRATTLEBORO — Compassion — and civility — were the main themes that emerged Thursday night during a standing-room-only forum on the opioid crisis facing the town.

The turnout in the meeting room at the Brattleboro Fire Station amazed the forum organizers, and the warm room did not discourage the 150 or so people who wanted to hear the panelists and find out if they had answers to the crisis.

When Dr. Kathleen McGraw of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital asked how many people carried Narcan in their pocketbooks, dozens of people raised their hands, an indication of how widespread the opioid problem is. More people raised their hands when asked if they knew someone who had an addiction. Windham County last year had the highest number of opioid deaths per county in Vermont last year with 24 — seven in Brattleboro alone. Parents, teachers, social workers, police officers and therapists all said that people with opioid addiction need compassion more than anything — that and a place "to be."

Speaker after speaker stressed the need for compassion, saying addiction is an illness that has a profound effect on a person's body and mind, as well as the addict's loved ones.

Dr. Geoffrey Kane, chief of addiction services at the Brattleboro Retreat, told the group that the brain undergoes changes while taking opioids, and a person's susceptibility to addiction is both one of genetics and past life experiences. Healing comes, Kane said, when addicts — and others — face their past mistakes. He quoted a patient saying she finally got control over her life when she "finally got over myself," he said to knowing laughter in the room.

Suzie Walker, executive director of The Turning Point in Brattleboro, which works with addicts, had a message of hope: "People do recover. There is hope. Addiction robs us of our very selves," said Walker, telling the crowd she was 21 years sober.

Former resident Rebecca Morean said she now lives in Ohio, but she said Brattleboro and Vermont are taking the right approach to fighting addiction. Ohio, which is also hard hit by the crisis, is not, she said.

"Compassion is the way to the cure," said Morean, noting her students in Ohio often told her that addicts should die — "it's their fault," she quoted them. But once she had a student — a former addict — talk to the class, it changed their thinking dramatically. "Good for Vermont!" she said.

Toward the end of the forum, Ann Wright, the front-end manager at the Brattleboro Food Co-op, asked what people who work downtown should do about the addicts who are hanging around the downtown area. Wright said that while she also agrees with the need for compassion, she said there also has to be civility for the people who are simply trying to go to work or shop. "Uncivil behavior is affecting a lot of us working downtown," Wright said, to applause, toward the end of the forum. She said she was concerned that people — out of compassion — were becoming "tolerant of uncivil behavior." She said one Co-op shopper had left her 92-year-old mother in the car, and her mother was confronted by a panhandler and she ended up giving the person money. In addition, she said, there were acts of indecent exposure and sexual activity by the panhandlers.

Panelists urged people to ask the panhandlers their names and ask them how they were doing, to strike up a conversation and to treat them as a human being, rather than an addict. It's an individual choice whether to give them money, they said. Wright said she won't give panhandlers money, but she will offer to buy them a meal. She said one woman came into the Co-op saying she had been assaulted and robbed, but it turned out she was overdosing, Wright said. "We've had multiple overdoses in our bathrooms," Wright said.

One man, who said he was a peer counselor, said there were two young women on the streets of Brattleboro who were close to death. But Brattleboro Police Lt. Adam Petlock said the police could not force people into treatment.

Brattleboro businessman Larry Cassidy had asked the panel what would be the best approach to the panhandlers that have become a larger problem in the downtown area. Should people give money to the panhandlers, who are believed to be mostly addicts, or not? he asked. "Are we helping?" he asked. People from the audience told Cassidy he should follow his conscience and do what he thought best.

Many residents, who identified themselves as family members who had relatives who were addicts, urged people not to give up on people — even after repeated overdoses. One former addict who is now helping addicts had overdosed 27 times, a woman said.

Dr. Kathleen McGraw, the chief medical officer at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, said the emergency room treats people on a daily basis and that the hospital would soon start giving out free supplies of Narcan. While Narcan is available over the counter, unless you have health insurance, the cost is about $100, she said.

Brattleboro Fire Chief Michael Bucossi, who helped organize the forum, said his department deals with overdosing addicts almost every day.

He said he was thrilled with the turnout, which he estimated between 150 to 175 people. "We didn't know what to expect," the chief said. "This was a huge step for the community."

Production Date: 
Thursday, June 20, 2019 - 18:00

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