In 2014, as Governor of Vermont, Peter Shumlin described the opioid crisis as a “rising tide of drug addiction and drug related crimes” that increasingly “threatened” the people of Vermont. Three years later, Shumlin finds himself frustrated with a staggering lack of progress.
“This is a challenge that none of us are taking seriously enough,” said Shumlin, who left office earlier this year, during an interview with Boston Public Radio. “What I find so frustrating is that we don’t go to the root cause. We refuse to talk about why we’re here."
The problem, as Shumlin sees it, is the availability of powerful pain killers.
"Why do we suddenly have people shooting heroin all across America?" he asked. "It’s directly related to the approval of Oxycontin by the FDA, the fact that we pass out Oxycontin and other painkillers like candy, which is heroin in pill form, and none of us will simply turn to big pharma and say enough is enough, stop killing our sons and daughters, we’re going to stop handing out painkillers like candy in America.”
In the past few years, governors across New England have tried to curb opiate addiction through legislation that either reduces the amount of pills prescribed or reforms the criminal justice system to approach addiction as a disease instead of a crime. But these actions, according to Shumlin, aren’t enough, and people just aren’t informed about what opiates can do.
“We don’t learn from it,” he said. “My mom said to me recently — after I’ve been fighting this battle for years — ‘I don’t understand what painkillers have to do with heroin.’ I’m like, well mom, you’ve got to think about it this way. It is heroin in pill form, when the doctors finally cut you off or the medical establishment says you can’t really have that much pain, you go to the $5 a bag heroin that you can buy on the streets almost anywhere, pure form, never been cheaper, and when you shoot that stuff into your veins, you’re in for a lifelong battle.”
So why is this battle still happening? Shumlin says big pharma is to blame. Back in 1995, Purdue Pharma submitted an application for OxyContin to the FDA. The FDA had received assurance from the pharmaceutical company that the product was non-addictive, and the drug was approved. In 2010, company executives pleaded guilty to criminal charges that they misled FDA regulators about the drug’s risk of addiction and potential for abuse, paying $600 million in fines and other payments. This payment (one of the largest amounts ever paid by a drug company) was substantial, yet OxyContin is still on the market. “They paid a fine...three of their executives pleaded guilty, but of course they did $11 billion in sales that year,” Shumlin said. “These guys don’t go to jail, they’re white-collar killers.”
Peter Shumlin was the Governor of Vermont from 2001-2017. He’s currently a fellow at the Kennedy school’s institute of politics, and Wednesday night at 6:00pm he’ll be part of a discussion about the nation’s opioid epidemic. For more information, visit iop.harvard.edu. To hear his complete interview with Boston Public Radio, click on the audio player above.