The Opiate Offensive

Published 05/05 2014 07:33PM

Updated 05/06 2014 11:49AM

MONTPELIER, VT- It's no secret, heroin and opiate addiction ruins lives.

More than 50 Vermonters are dying each year from opiate drug poisoning, and deaths from heroin are doubling.

So, are the right measures in place to fight this? Or, is this a losing battle?

"How big of a concern is the heroin and opiates problem in Vermont?" asked Christine Souders, ABC22 FOX44 Weekend Anchor/Reporter.

"It's a huge concern here. When the FDA approved OxyContin 12- 14 years ago, we dispensed it with such enthusiasm that a lot of Vermonters, and a lot of Americans, this is a 50 state problem, that became addicted to opiates," said Governor Peter Shumlin, (D-Vt.).

The result, more people are turning to heroin. It's often cheaper and easier to come by than OxyContin.

Now, it's propelled the state into crisis mode.

"We've got the best quality of life in the nation. This is the one thing that could cripple it," said Gov. Shumlin.

Some might say the perception of the Green Mountain State has shifted—and you can see that in national headlines. In last month's Rolling Stone Magazine, an image of a sugarmaker in the woods using drugs.

"I wish they hadn't picked that photo--having said that the article is a realistic one, “said Gov. Shumlin.

Law enforcement estimates that $2 million worth of heroin is coming into this state, each week. 

"Why do you think drug dealers are setting up shop in Vermont?" asked ABC22 FOX44 Reporter Christine Souders.

"Because the money's good, let's be honest about this. Right now, you can buy a bag of heroin in cities to the south of us for 5, 6 bucks a bag. The street value in Vermont is 20 to 30 bucks a bag, so there's a huge financial incentive for them to come in here, which is one reason that in my recommendations I’ve suggested to strengthen penalties against drug dealers who are coming in to sell this poison to Vermonters," said Gov. Shumlin.

"We have become their new territory," said Staff Operations Officer John Sly, with the Rutland Police Department.

"We're looking at a significant source of supply coming out of metropolitan New York City area; we've also attributed supplies coming out of the Springfield, Mass area, also Albany, NY area."

And the number of drug-related crimes continues to rise.

In Winooski, Police Chief Steve McQueen believes 100% of the larcenies and armed robberies are to support a habit.

This year alone, the Winooski Police Department has spent $17,000 of their own money on drug-related investigations.

"This is costing us a ton of loot. That doesn't count the cost of everyone who gets ripped off of money being spent on the drug itself, it doesn't count the cost of a parent who gets addicted ends up in jail, and those kids are often left without a parent back home, all the social services go with it, I mean this is a terrible financial burden, and it certainly doesn't count the cost of the corrections budget," said Gov. Shumlin.

It costs on about $55,000 a year to lock someone up, a burden placed on taxpayers.

80% of those incarcerated are in jail on addiction-related charges. But if jail isn't answer... what is?

"For every dollar that you spend on substance abuse treatment- studies have repeatedly shown that you save  between 4 and 7 dollars of the cost- a client in methadone clinic costs the state around 450 dollars a month,” said Bob Bick, director of mental health and substance abuse services at the HowardCenter in Burlington.

But there's a catch. Right now, addicts have to wait for treatment.

"I know we've had a couple hundred folks on the waiting list, and we had been seeing a trend line number was increasing, and that's begun to level off a little bit," said Bick.

In 2002, when the HowardCenter opened its first methadone, it had 70 patients. Today, there are more than 800.

Vermont has 57 locations in which addicts can seek treatment. Nearly 4,000 people take advantage of the help. 

The legislature will soon sign a bill, which includes $12 million to beef up treatment centers, and change the way prosecutors handle these drug cases.

 "Let's give state's attorneys, our prosecutors a third party assessor. The minute that someone is caught with heroin or OxyContin addiction to say listen, if you're someone that we're scared of, you're going to jail. If you're someone that we should feel badly about, but isn't a threat to other people, you're going into the treatment program if you will, and if you succeed, you'll never go through a criminal conviction, you'll never go through the court system," said Gov. Shumlin.

The state estimates 10% to 12% of Vermonters addicted to opiates are in treatment.

Still more work needs to be done.

The governor admits he doesn't have all the answers, but if Vermont doesn't face this challenge, who will?

"What is your ultimate goal here," asked Reporter Christine Souders.

“Number one to take addicts that we have, and move them into recovery and back into productive lives. Number two find better ways to prevent addiction in the first place, and that's about education, it's about being willing from the governor on down to talk about it. What we can do is take a situation that's crippling all 50 states and be the state that first starts to get it right,” said Shumlin.

Now, this $12 million dollars Governor Shumlin wants to beef up treatment centers with, that amount is subject to change, when this fiscal year budget is decided.

So, we could start seeing those dollars being spent to fight this epidemic as soon as July 1.

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