January 15

Heroin and pill abuse stir a battle cry in Vermont

Nearly every day, police are responding to burglaries or armed robberies investigators believe are prompted by a hunger for money to feed drug addictions.

By Wilson Ring
The Associated Press

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Behind the facade of pristine ski slopes, craft beer, quaint village greens and one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, Vermont is grappling with painkiller and heroin abuse, a challenge leaders say is fueling crime and wrecking lives and families disproportionately in this tiny state.

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In this June 19, 2013, photo, Springfield, Vt., resident Susan White looks over booking photos displayed at a Vermont State Police news conference to discuss the arrest of 36 people as part of a large drug sweep.

The Associated Press

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Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin delivers the State of the State Address at the Statehouse in Montpelier, Vt., on Jan. 8, 2014. Shumlin highlighted opiate abuse in the state by devoting nearly his entire speech to it.

The Associated Press

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Nearly every day, police across Vermont are responding to burglaries or armed robberies investigators believe are prompted by the unslakable hunger for money to feed heroin or pill habits. In many cases, law enforcement officials say, what began as the abuse of prescription drugs has turned into heroin use because it’s less expensive and, more recently, easier to get.

Federal statistics rank Vermont among the top 10 states for the abuse of painkillers and illicit drug use other than marijuana — including heroin — for people ages 18 to 25.

Last week, Gov. Peter Shumlin took the unusual step of highlighting the challenge by devoting almost his entire State of the State address to it. He described the drug abuse as “a crisis bubbling just beneath the surface” and called on the Legislature to pass laws encouraging treatment and seek ideas on the best way to prevent people from becoming addicted in the first place. He also called for stiffer penalties for traffickers and people who use weapons in drug crimes.

“Anyone who doesn’t believe that they have an opiate challenge in their state is in denial,” Shumlin said in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, the day after his speech. “The point is that if we can shift from our belief, our fantasy, that we can solve all of these problems with law enforcement, we’ll go a long way toward solving the problem. This is primarily a public health crisis.”

The numbers are startling for a state the size of Vermont, which with 625,000 residents has a population about the same as Nashville, Tenn.:

— It ranks second in the country for the rate of people being treated for opiate abuse, the Vermont Health Department says.

— Over the past five years, the number of serious drug crimes rose 46 percent, according to a study released in October by the Justice Center of the Council on State Governments.

— Last year, the number of heroin overdose deaths almost doubled from nine to 17. And the number of heroin dealers indicted at the request of Vermont’s federal prosecutors increased rose more than five times between 2010 and 2013.

— From 2009 through 2012, the number of calls reporting suspected child abuse or neglect caused by drug abuse to the Vermont Department of Children and Families increased about 38 percent, from 3,293 to 4,555, said Commissioner Dave Yacovone.

Vermonters have no ready explanation for the rise in drug use. The state has consistently had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, but in his speech, Shumlin said the underlying cause of addiction was “a lack of hope and opportunity” that he proposed counteracting with good jobs and “the best early education in America.”

Many prescription painkillers belong to a class of drugs known as opioids, which also includes heroin, codeine and methadone. Many states are reporting increasing heroin problems as an unintended byproduct of efforts to crack down on painkiller abuse that didn’t include treatment of the underlying addiction, said Sherry Green, executive director of the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws.

“What they are doing, they are shifting to heroin because if they are already addicted to opiates they are going to ... switch to the next best thing, which is heroin,” she said.

(Continued on page 2)

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A suspect is taken into custody on Jan. 16, 2013, in Bennington, Vt., one of dozens of suspects rounded up in southwestern Vermont on charges related to the distribution and sale of illicit drugs.

The Associated Press

  


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