Heroin in Vermont

The danger in believing we are special is that it can blind us to what’s right under our noses. We mix and drink our Kool-Aid and then bask in our self-esteem. Vermont is a wonderful place. It is not, however, special or immune.

Our lack of transparency has led to a rash of community embezzlements. Supposedly, we all know and trust one another, until we don’t anymore.

We have the healthiest and best educated children in the nation, until…we look deeper.

Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling recently estimated that at any given time in northern Vermont there are fifteen to twenty organized crews sometimes with roots to street “gangs” in large cities like New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Chicago distributing up to 4500 bags of heroin every week. Each bag costs $20. This amounts to 1.35 million dollars a week or 70 million dollars in annual heroin sales in northern Vermont and a growing stream of new addictions. Rutland, Bennington, other small urban areas and many small towns in Vermont are also under siege from heroin dealers and they are not included in the above figures.

If you doubt these numbers, just know that their scale is reflected both in the increase in reported property thefts and the waitlist for addicts seeking methadone treatment at the Howard Center in Burlington. Remember, too, that this is just heroin. Add in methamphetamine, alcohol and pharmaceutical opiate addictions and the picture of our children and ourselves no longer looks so special. The waitlist for alcohol treatment at Maple Leaf Farm in Underhill is over 100 and these waitlists are people who have already hit bottom and are seeking help.

Most law enforcement professionals say that the “War on Drugs” has been an expensive flop and that interdiction isn’t possible as long as a robust market exists. Drug gangs market their product just as tobacco, junk food, and alcohol companies do.

There is no single solution to this problem. Solutions are more nuanced than illegalization and a “Just Say No” campaign since the causes are deeply intertwined in our changing culture and in the deteriorating economic fabric of our country.

Addressing burgeoning drug addiction will demand strategic cooperation rather than the old jurisdictional competition for money that so often dooms initiatives. Vermont has more than 60 law enforcement authorities. Additional overlap exists in social agencies, healthcare, and education. It’s hard to be strategic and local at the same time.

The heroin problem will only be solved by a high level consensus derived from law enforcement, the judiciary, the legislature, educators, recovery and mental health professionals, social service organizations, government agencies, businesses, rights watchdogs like the ACLU and well-informed citizens. No single sector or agency has a comprehensive solution and all will need to be heard before consensus action is taken.  Education and media will be critical parts of the solution, but every sector will have their task in solving this issue. Otherwise, one day we’re special and then, all of a sudden, one day, we’re not anymore.

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