Substance-misuse prevention bill fosters connection

‘The bill might appear to be a small change but it is actually a substantial shift in policy and process’

LONDONDERRY — As I write during the last few days of the legislative session, I am reflecting on the things that feel like actual accomplishments, even if they appear to be small.

I will say that “accomplishment” strikes me as being a bill that actually ends up becoming law.

Of course, in any given year, some legislation is often many years in the making. We saw several important examples: raising the age to purchase tobacco products to 21 (signed into law May 16), funding assistance for the deployment of broadband in underserved communities (passed by House and Senate May 17), and funding clean water initiatives (passed by House and Senate May 22).

Other laws seem to spring up suddenly because of specific circumstances in the here and now: protecting reproductive rights (passed House and Senate May 13), and banning internet sales of tobacco substitutes (signed into law May 16).

Some bills need further work and consideration to make it into the “green books” - the Vermont statutes. As someone who values due diligence and process, I recognize that that is important.

Sometimes a no vote simply means a good idea needs more work.

Sometimes success or failure hinges on a single word in a bill. The amount of time spent on discussions over whether to use the word “may” versus “shall” in any given piece of legislation is astounding and yet so incredibly important.

At times, it is amazing that both houses of the Legislature and the governor can agree on anything - and yet every year that manages to happen through hard work and compromise.

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I had the pleasure of working on a substance-misuse-prevention bill this year, and because of our collaboration with the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare, that bill is on its way to the governor.

The bill might appear to be a small change but it is actually a substantial shift in policy and process.

In a nutshell, this bill takes three separate boards and councils - the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council, the Tobacco Evaluation and Review Board, and the Opioid Coordination Council - each working on prevention misuse of a specific substance. It combines them into one board -the Substance Misuse Prevention Oversight and Advisory Council - which would work to reduce misuse of all substances.

Vermont is often ranked one of the healthiest states in the country - almost always among the top two or three. While this is something to celebrate, we fall short when it comes to substance misuse. Vermont has some of the highest substance-misuse rates in the nation, including high rates of smoking and drinking during pregnancy, binge drinking among young adults, and cannabis use among youth.

And, the opioid crisis continues to take lives.

We must get ahead of this problem - and make sure Vermonters grow up and live in a state where healthy choices are the norm and where substance misuse and dependence do not affect so many of our citizens.

Preventing substance misuse reduces the risks that contribute to alcohol, tobacco or other drug dependence - while promoting protective factors that support healthy lifestyles and communities.

Because upstream evidence-based prevention focuses on promoting positive protective factors, it is not substance-specific - meaning the same strategies work to prevent misuse of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.

Prevention works at the individual, family, school, community, and policy levels. Programs and services that help communities become as healthy and involved as they can be are a key part of alcohol-, tobacco-, and drug-use prevention in Vermont.

Bringing communities together is a job for many people from all walks of life, including law enforcement, parents, students, community coalitions, and health-care providers. Prevention programs help support communities to grow in wellness and health at all stages of life.

Sensitivity to, and inclusion of, the cultural values of the community enhances their effectiveness.

The most effective prevention efforts include strategies and services across multiple environments to support a comprehensive approach toward preventing and reducing use of these substances.

Evidence-based prevention works. We know that from evaluations of models such as the “Iceland Model” you have heard about in the media, as well as from models built and evaluated here in Vermont, like the Collaborative in Londonderry.

These models create programing and policy that support healthy activities within the community, encourage positive human connection both within family units and the community at large, and help build resilience that can carry an individual through a lifetime.

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A recent remark from a colleague struck me as encompassing the current prevention landscape: “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it is connection.”

This bill seeks to build on the strength Vermont has in those already doing prevention work in our communities and move us forward to invest, evaluate, and promote the best possible prevention practices that can be replicated across the state. We know that prevention requires engagement across sectors, and the new Council will include members from many walks of life, including the director of trauma prevention and resilience development, as well as youth, persons with lived experience with substance misuse, and professionals from across many disciplines who focus on prevention.

The bill also creates the position of chief prevention officer to integrate prevention efforts statewide, across all agencies of government, and into populations that are not traditionally considered for substance-misuse-prevention efforts, like older Vermonters.

The chief prevention officer will work with this new council to create policy and programming to help Vermonters at all stages of life have the resources to make healthy choices and be connected to community.

It was an honor to work on this bill and to be a part of the messy business of creating laws in general. Our state representatives are already looking ahead to the bills that need more consideration to make it across the finish line before this biennium comes to an end in 2020.

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