Heroin conference draws lawmakers, community members

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(Host) By every measure, heroin use in Vermont continues to increase: drug arrests are up, more people are seeking treatment for addiction, and drug related deaths are climbing. In Montpelier Thursday, legislators, law enforcement officials, health care providers and community members met to talk about Vermont’s heroin problem.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) The statistics presented during the all-day conference were sobering. They pointed to a heroin problem that will get worse before it gets better. According to Captain Michael Jennings of the Vermont State Police Drug Task Force, heroin arrests will increase by 100% annually for the foreseeable future.

(Jennings) “Well, it is shocking. But I think the reason we have to say that is, this is just increasing by leaps and bounds. And that’s exactly why we’re here today.”

(Zind) Jennings and other law enforcement officials said that efforts to stop the flow of heroin into Vermont are having an effect. But as law enforcement improves, traffickers find other ways to hide the drug. Slowing the flow of heroin also pushes the price up. That can increase other crimes like break-ins and thefts, because users need more money.

A three-legged stool was used as a prop to illustrate how Vermont needs a three-pronged approach to heroin: prevention, treatment and law enforcement. Jennings said neither approach can be effective without the success of the other two:

(Jennings) “Prevention is very important. Treatment is important. One thing that hasn’t been talked about too much today is that law enforcement not only plays a key role in getting people off the street, but we also provide the motive many times, for people to go to treatment. Not just because they’re incarcerated, but you’d be amazed at how many people we’ve arrested over the years who said ‘Thank you for arresting me, I was out of control, I need treatment, now I have to go.'”

(Zind) But stopping just heroin isn’t enough. There are signs that when heroin is hard to find, users will turn to other addictive drugs. Tom Perras of the Health Department says in order to combat heroin, Vermonters need to look at why substance abuse is so widespread. He cited statistics that show one-third of all Vermont adults is a heavy drinker.

(Perras) “What kind of culture do we have that supports binge drinking, or seems to promote it, or allows the wild advertising that seems to promote it. I think all those thinks contribute to an environment that says, ‘It’s okay to go out and get blasted out of your mind, have a good time, raise holy hell.’ And then we wonder why we have drug problem.”

(Zind) There were some glimmers of hope. Doctors and health care workers are getting more involved in intervention and treatment. Community members are organizing to fight heroin. Treatment options have improved with the opening the Vermont’s first methadone clinic. But there’s already a waiting list at the facility and advocates say more are needed around the state. Conference organizers say they’ll continue to meet to talk about ways to combat heroin in Vermont.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Montpelier.

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