Surge In Heroin And Prescription Drug Abuse In Vt. Towns

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Police arrested ten people earlier this month at a drug raid in Chester. In September, ten were arrested in Rutland on gun and drug charges, and more arrests are expected.

In Bristol, local police say drug crimes are up there. And earlier this year a Milton drug sweep netted dozens of suspected drug dealers.

Substance abuse problems cost the state millions every year in lost productivity, crime and health related expenses. 

Communities are also paying dearly. In Rutland, last month’s crash that killed 17-year old Carly Ferro is seen as a wake-up call to the escalating drug problem. The driver of the car has been charged with inhaling fumes from an aerosol can just before the crash.

But is Rutland’s drug problem any worse than other parts of Vermont?  And if so, what’s brought it to the boiling point?

The screen door opens and Rob and Lynne Fredette walk onto their front porch in northwest Rutland.  The couple bought their house 22 years ago and Rob says it’s been frustrating to watch their neighborhood fall victim to the drug trade. "They park right in front of our house," he says,   "and they walk around the corner.   I’ve actually confronted them point blank and said if you’re going to deal your drugs, do it in front of their house. I don’t need the crap in front of my house. We’ve got kids here and we don’t need that here," says Fredette. "Not to mention I’ve taken your license plate number down and I wanted to make sure I got a good look at you so I can turn you into the police."

The problem is widespread. Last month, Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras removed benches at a prominent downtown park because of complaints that too many drug deals were taking place there.  

Local resident Joan Rossi says she’s shocked by the audacity of some of the drug sales. "Two days ago coming out of Price Chopper and I looked down and 15 feet from me and there were these two girls and this man," says Rossi.  "And they did their out of the pocket in the pocket made a deal right in front of Price Chopper. And I thought, ‘My god!’"

But is Rutland’s drug addiction problem any worse than St. Alban’s, Winooski’s or Brattleboro’s?  Yes and no. 

According to the Vermont Health Department, the number of people in Rutland County who sought help for addiction to heroin and pain pills – the current drugs of choice – has gone up seven fold since 2000 to 383. 

But Franklin and Grand Isle counties saw their numbers jump as well from 13 in 2000 to 322 last year.  Windsor and Bennington Counties have also seen large increases.

Clay Gilbert is the director of Evergreen Substance Abuse Services, an outpatient treatment center in Rutland. "I think the whole country has a serious addiction problem," says Gilbert, "and unfortunately, there’s a pill for everything." And there are lots of pills being prescribed in Vermont. 

Gilbert says he was shocked by what he heard at a community forum last year in Rutland. "A pharmacist stood up and gave a statistic that made my jaw drop and not many things make my jaw drop and this did."

The pharmacist talked about data gathered by the Vermont Prescription Monitoring System which showed over a million doses of Oxycodone were prescribed in Rutland County the previous year.  Oxycodone is the opiate-based painkiller found in drugs like: Tylox, Percocet and Oxycontin, says Gilbert. "Which figures out to 17 pills for every man woman and child in the county."

But the problem is not just in Rutland. Grand Isle and Bennington counties had even higher per capita prescription rates.

Once prescribed those pain pills end up on the street in a variety of ways. With the economy hurting, more folks who get narcotics for legitimate reasons are selling part of their prescriptions for extra money.

Gilbert says others won’t use all their medicine.

"Well their grandson or granddaughter comes in, goes through the medicine cabinet, finds the pillsand that’s another way drugs have hit the streets."

That’s a rough sketch of the prescription drug problem. But there’s also a problem with drugs like heroin.

To understand when and how that came to Vermont, Clay Gilbert says, you have to go back to the mid 1990s."At that time," he says," crack was starting to get popular. And if you think of it from a business model, having a lot of people addicted to crack cocaine is not a good business model," says Gilbert, "because people don’t last very long on crack cocaine. They keep dying off.  But," he points out, "people can be on opiates for 10, 20, 30 years. So it’s a much better drug to have people on if you’re thinking of it from an organized crime model.

So, he says drug traffickers switched from crack to heroin and began introducing it to all the major communities in Vermont. "And a lot of their sales pitch – they specifically went after area young people was, this is really good stuff. You don’t have to shoot it up to get high and nobody really gets addicted if they just snort it.  So that got the ball rolling as far as opiates go."

By 2002, Chittenden County opened the state’s first methadone clinic to address the problem. Others followed.  But Rutland repeatedly said no to methadone – which area heath officials say may be partly to blame for the city’s escalating drug problems now.

Rutland also repeatedly said no to expanding its recreation department – and many in the city say not having enough activities for area young people is also part of the problem.

James Baker, Rutland city’s new police chief, says getting a handle on the city’s addiction problem is his number one priority.  "What we do at the police department every single day is driven by the depth of the substance abuse problem.  The drug problem is driving a lot of our quality of life crimes," says Baker, "disorderly conduct, vandalisms, petty thefts, thefts from cars. And we can’t get ahead of it," he says, "because all we do is respond to the fallout from it. And I think until we take a look at the level of addicted and get some programs in place where people who are addicted can get help and cut down on the demand for the drugs we’re not going to get our arms around the problem"

Baker says the good news is that Rutland is expected to open a methadone clinic early next year.  Mental Health officials in the city say that within a few years it should be serving several hundred recovering addicts with methadone and Buprenorphine – drugs that help ease withdrawal symptoms for opiate addicts and help them stabilize.

But Back on Library Avenue, Rob and Lynne Fredette say it may be too little too late for their northwest Rutland neighborhood.  The couple says they’ve watched real estate prices on their street plummet and vacant homes left abandoned for years only to be used by squatters to sell drugs.   And they want to move.  "Yes, absolutely," say the couple.  "As soon as we get the house fixed up and renovated from the flood, hopefully by the spring.   "I’ll take a loss if I have to," says Rob, "I want to move out of this neighborhood."

Local officials say providing adequate treatment and police protection is vital for Rutland, but they admit they also have to do more to encourage homeowners in troubled parts of the city – like the Fredettes – not to give up.

Part Two: Rutland’s Poorest Neighborhoods Suffer Most From Drug Problem


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