The economics of drug use has changed dramatically in the past generation. It used to be that heroin was an expensive drug, way out of the range of high school students and casual users who had to work for a living. In the 1980s, a bag cost about $100. Today, $10 will buy you that same bag of heroin — roughly the price of a pack of smokes or a high-priced beer.
Because of the abundance of poppy farms, the drug has gotten so inexpensive that police reports are suggesting drug dealers routinely give away the first several hits of heroin to get new users hooked, then rope them into the habit with copious amounts of the drug at what could be termed affordable prices.
The consequence is logical. Vermont is seeing a drug epidemic, as is the rest of the Northeast and nation.
“Drugs are not aproblem, it’s the problem, and it’s overrunning the state,” said Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel in a story in today’s Addison Independent. That sentiment is echoed by Bristol Police Chief Kevin Gibbs and local State’s Attorney David Fenster, who noted that the quantity of drugs on the street is “just tremendous.”
The story is a wake-up call to a crisis that has been gathering steam for the past couple of years. In 2009, Merkel said, Vergennes police recorded just one charge for the sale of narcotics; in 2010, the number of drug sales jumped to four, then eight in 2011 and eight in 2012. So far in 2013, Vergennes police have investigated 13 cases of drug sales and 20 cases of narcotics possession cases.
“And that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Merkel says. The same increase in case loads have been seen in Bristol, Gibbs says, noting that he started to see the problem developing before staff was cut a couple years ago. Those staff reductions have been magnified by a shortage of state police working out of the Addison County barracks in New Haven, which is operating with four vacancies among 11 troopers, and only two of three sergeants.
Even with that shortage of officers, VSP Sgt. James Hogan says they dealt with 352 drug-possession cases in 2012, compared to 256 in 2011 — an increase of about 30 percent. For the first five months of 2013, the caseload has been 154 compared to 125 in the same period in 2012.
Gov. Peter Shumlin is in the midst of studying the problem, calling it the administration’s primary focus. “The abundance of drugs, particularly heroin and other opiates, is overwhelming the state,” Shumlin said in a recent phone interview, adding that it’s imperative the state get a handle on what he called “a growing and worsening problem.”
What’s to be done?
Education is part of the answer, and educators in the K-12 program in Vergennes, Ferrisburgh and Addison are making drug awareness instruction part of the program there. Gibbs and Merkel have also recently held community forums to talk about the problem and develop strategies. Both tactics will help.
But Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley goes a step further. The problem to understand, he said, is what’s driving these users to take what they know is a dangerous drug.
“These kids know more than you or I know about heroin and opiates,” Hanley said. “We can put money into all the drug education programs out there and it won’t touch the problem if it doesn’t address the underlying issues.” Those issues, he said, are the causes that make people dispossessed, that make the user lose hope and be despondent. As a community, he said, we have to learn how to recognize those signs and know how to respond.
In Middlebury, the opiate problem doesn’t appear to be as acute. Hanley credits the school resource officer and a veteran police force for helping reduce crime, including drug convictions, from the year before. Middlebury residents can only hope those statistics are telling the real story, and that the larger police force in town is paying dividends.
Hope aside, however, what’s clear from a statewide perspective is that opiate use is escalating rapidly and Vermonters need a game plan. A first step is to pay attention to your immediate neighborhood and to report suspicious behavior to local police; another is to talk to teens about the availability and danger of opiates; a third is to encourage your community to have town-wide education seminars to highlight the problem and, as Hanley says, talk about the underlying causes and how to address them.
To that end, perhaps the most effective state effort is to launch a program that goes county-to-county teaching residents what to watch for and how to follow through with appropriate action. That could be done in cooperation with the well-known “neighborhood watch” programs, which could also be expanded into areas where there is a growing need and oriented less toward police work (reporting thefts, etc.) and more toward recognizing trouble signs that are brewing and how to help.
This is also, Hanley cautioned, not a problem that can be solved quickly, but a generational issue to tackle over the next couple of decades. The goal today is to get started.
Angelo S. Lynn