Opioid Addiction: Sanders, AG talk with students in emotional high school assembly

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Harrowing stories of opioid addiction, recovery, triumph and tragedy filled the air during a town-hall style assembly at Burlington High School Friday held by Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan was on the verge of tears as he talked about a friend from Burlington High School who became addicted to opiates.

Donovan's friend was a smart, charismatic fullback on the BHS football team, he said. They ran in the same circles and would likely have been sitting next to each other at assemblies like the one on Friday, he said.

"But then we lost touch," Donovan said. "And then out of the blue, I got this random message from him."

The message was desperate. His friend was asking for help.

I did? I ignored it," Donovan said. "I thought like a lawyer. I didn't think like a regular person." Soon after, his friend died from an overdose. "This disease, it kills people's souls," he said.

Another panelist, Kelly Breeyear, a nurse, struggled with addiction through several pregnancies and a period of homelessness. As she gazed at the audience of high school students, Breeyear said, "I see a huge crowd of people I'm really scared for."

Breeyear's troubles started when she was a high school student. She tore her ACL playing basketball and was prescribed opioids to manage the pain, she said. "I liked them. A lot," Breeyear said.

A series of personal tragedies exacerbated her pain, physically and emotionally, and she started to lean more on prescription opioids, she said. She started buying pills off the street, and then took prescription drugs from a nursing home where she worked.

Breeyear was using pills when she was pregnant with her second child, she said, and her daughter was born with withdrawal symptoms. She eventually went through treatment programs and, after a brief relapse, says she is healthy now.

"We need to stop this now. I don't want any of you to have to feel the pain that my family has felt," she said.

"I need your help. Not only for Vermont, but for the entire country," Sanders told the students. "It is critically important that we have an honest and open discussion about this crisis that claimed the lives of 112 Vermonters last year, and affected thousands more. If we do not have the courage to talk about this issue, we are never, ever going to solve it."

More than 60,000 people died from opioid overdoses in the United States last year. Narcan was used on more than 2,200 Vermonters last year to reverse the effects of an overdose, according to the Vermont Department of Health.

Much of the discussion Friday, led by Sanders, was focused on how to eliminate the stigma around opioid addiction and how to treat it as a medical, not a criminal justice, issue.

Students were encouraged to ask the panel, which also included Dr. Heather Stein, associate medical director at the Community Health Centers of Burlington, about opioid addiction.

"Have the courage, if you can, to speak the truth," Sanders told students. The questions students asked were off the record at the request of Burlington High School officials, so that they could speak candidly about personal experiences.

Local officials are exploring ways to help people who are addicted to opioids. Sarah George, who replaced Donovan as State's Attorney in Chittenden County, is leading a commission that will issue a report later this month on whether safe places for heroin users would help to ease the crisis. George has said she will likely support safe consumption sites if the state law allows them.

So-called safe consumption sites are places where people who are addicted to drugs — specifically heroin, which is often injected via a needle to the arm — can use the drug under medical supervision and without fear of legal trouble.

Advocates say making sites available for safe consumption can be a part of the solution to the nation's opioid epidemic. Earlier this year, Seattle became the first city to allow safe harbors for opiate use and Montreal opened three around the same time. Ithaca, N.Y., is also debating opening them.

Rep. Selene Colburn, a Burlington lawmaker, is planning to introduce a bill in the 2018 legislative session that would legalize safe consumption sites in Vermont. Colburn introduced the same bill earlier this year, but it did not pass out of committee.

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