Officials eye new tools to fight drug addiction

VERGENNES — Local law enforcement, health care and social service officials turned out in force in Vergennes on Sept. 3 to plan new strategies for stemming the alarming flow, and use, of heroin and other opiates in Addison County.

The meeting was billed as a follow-up to last spring’s “summit on opiate addiction” called by Gov. Peter Shumlin, who has made the topic a prime focus of his administration.

The Sept. 3 gathering, held at St. Peter’s Parish Hall, included an overview of opiate use and related crime activity in the county, followed by some brainstorming on ways to curb it — including a recently launched program in Rutland called “Project Vision.”

Information provided by the Vermont Substance Abuse Treatment Information System (SATIS) indicates only a handful of county residents were being treated for addiction to heroin and other opiates during fiscal year 2000. That number climbed to more than 120 during fiscal year 2012, the most recent year of data provided through SATIS. And Vermont Department of Health officials acknowledge that the number of addicts substantially exceeds the number of those who are in treatment.

Vermont in 2004 recorded 36 drug-related deaths involving opioids, according to the Department of Health. That number rose to 68 in 2013, according to state statistics.

“We know that 95 percent of people in need of treatment feel they don’t need treatment,” said Sarah A. Roy, substance Abuse Prevention Consultant for the Department of Health. “This is a curve we need to figure out.”

Roy explained the state is trying to set opiate addiction treatment “hubs” throughout the state. Those hubs include treatment centers to assess patients’ needs and coordinate treatment. The “spokes” on those hubs represent ancillary services for addicts, including out-patient substance abuse treatment providers, Federally Qualified Health Centers, and independent psychiatrists.

The state has built opiate addiction treatment hubs in Rutland and Chittenden counties.

“We are trying to build spokes here in Addison County,” Roy said. “We are trying to build (services) within our communities so we can keep (patients) here.”

To that end, Porter Hospital — with some state assistance — is expanding Addison County’s only clinic that currently prescribes suboxone to opiate addicts. Led by Dr. Emily Glick, Bristol Internal Medicine currently sees around 30 patients to whom suboxone may be prescribed (but not dispensed on-site). Thanks to the addition of new staff and supports, Bristol Internal Medicine will soon be able to see upwards of 100 patients, most of whom currently have to travel to Rutland or Burlington for treatment.

At the Sept. 3 meeting Glick said she was pleased to report that approximately 40 percent of her suboxone patients to date have successfully abstained from further use of opiates. These patients must submit to random testing and counseling.

“The way success is defined depends on the person,” Glick said, adding, “some people are more motivated for recovery than others.”

While local health care providers and counselors have been trying to wean addicts off of opiates, area police have reported an abundance of drug-related activity. Bristol police on Aug. 29 arrested four people on drug charges during a bust that also netted more than $4,000 in cash and thousands of bags of heroin. Bristol Police Chief Kevin Gibbs said he believes the operation dealt a “significant hit” to a large, out-of-state drug operation. He added that in recent years he has seen a pattern of out-of-state dealers coming to Bristol to operate.

The Vergennes Police Department has also made several drug busts since the beginning of the year. But city police Chief George Merkel said that has not discouraged pushers from plying their trade.

“There is a tidal wave of (heroin) coming into the state right now,” Merkel said. “It is such a lucrative market for drugs right now, if you arrest two (dealers), four more will show up.”

Merkel added he is very concerned about the prospect that Vermont might join the few other states in the union that have legalized marijuana, which he believes is a precursor to heavier drug use. He spoke of seeing evidence of a lot of marijuana use among children as young as 8th and 9th grades.

“If we allow (legalization of marijuana) to occur, we are shooting ourselves in the foot,” Merkel said.

Merkel cautioned that law enforcement alone will not solve the drug problem. It’s a problem that Rutland is attacking from many different angles, according to Joe Kraus, chairman of the group “Project Vision.”

Project Vision is a coalition of more than 100 Rutland-area stakeholders — including police, social service agency leaders, educators, businesspeople and citizens. The group formed around a year ago under the leadership of Rutland Police Chief James Baker to confront community problems and make Rutland “one of the healthiest, safest and happiest communities in America.”

“It is the most inspirational organizations I have ever been involved with,” Kraus said.

The group has focused primarily on tackling three areas: Treating addiction and substance abuse, reducing crime and “building great neighborhoods.” The group meets regularly to plan strategy and implement ideas that have included:

•  Revitalizing vacant buildings in the city that might otherwise become sites of illegal activity.

•  Conducting “evidence-based” policing. The police department logs all crime incidents on a map to better determine where the most troublesome areas are and how they can be addressed.

•  Having a direct police relationship with social workers, mediators and counselors who then work with offenders to tackle the problems that might have led to their behavior. Those officials have been working on a “universal consent” form that would allow a drug offender’s medical information to be shared among various aid workers to allow for more effective and comprehensive treatment for that individual. Federal HIPAA rules currently keep such medical information sealed.

“It’s made a huge difference,” Kraus said of Project Vision. “And it’s reproducible in every community in Vermont, if you have the right attitude.”

Rapid Intervention Community Court, also known as RICC, was also suggested as a tool in dealing with drug-related offenders. The RICC is available to offenders whose crimes have been driven by untreated addiction or mental illness, who in the judgment of police and prosecutors might reoffend while waiting the typical four to six weeks between their commission of the crime and their court arraignment date.

Those deemed eligible for the program can be offered pre-charge diversion if they undergo treatment, counseling and/or restitution to the victims of their crimes. Emmet Helrich coordinates the RICC, which is currently offered in several Vermont counties. It was briefly offered in Addison County, but was dropped as a result of staffing issues. The program has proved effective in weaning defendants off of drugs and easing the court docket, Helrich said. He added many of the RICC clients are women who are often victims of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and are self-medicating.

Only 7.4 percent of those who have been through the RICC program have re-offended, according to Helrich.

“It’s working,” he said of the program, which he would like to see re-established in Addison County. “It has done a lot.”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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