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U.S. Attorney, Law Enforcement Team Up To Fight Heroin Problem

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VPR/Melody Bodette
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At a press conference Monday in Burlington, United States Attorney Tristram Coffin gathered with law enforcement officers along drug treatment and prevention officials to send a message to people involved in the trafficking of heroin and other hard drugs in Vermont.

“If people think that they’re going to be able to come to Vermont or be in Vermont and sell heroin, and cocaine and other hard drugs, they are wrong and there will be a stiff price to pay for that,” Coffin said.

Drug use, including heroin have gone up, preceded by an increase in prescription drug use. Coffin says they’re working with treatment, prevention and law enforcement professionals to deal with the problem.

Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling says even for people who want to get off drugs it’s not easy.

“We’ve simply got to reduce the backlog of over 700 people seeking methadone treatment in Chittenden County alone,” Schirling said.

A renewed effort at multi-agency collaboration began in the fall. Since then, over 30 people have been indicted.

Schirling says other crimes – including burglaries of precious metals and electronics – are driven by the drug trade to fuel expensive opiate habits.

“Opiate habits, heroin habits in general are incredibly expensive. Our best estimate is that a mid-level heroin habit costs about $90,ooo a year to support. You’ve got to steal an awful lot of stuff,” Schirling explained.

The increase in burglaries is driven by opiate and other drug addictions.

“The issue is the addiction is so intractable, it makes people do desperate things,” Coffin said.

Schirling agrees saying they’re seeing that with the up tick in burglaries, “It used to be unheard of for the most part to have a burglary during the evening hours because most people are frequently home. In the last couple of years that’s changed, because of the desperation, there is less hesitancy to go into a house that couple be occupied, versus taking the risk to go in, grab a laptop and get out. They’re not trying to confront people inside, but there’s a more brazen nature or recklessness to the crime.”

Coffin says in three different arrests, 4,500 bags of heroin were seized by the Vermont State Police. Throughout Chittenden County there have been numerous seizures – from a 1,000 to 1,500 bags – numbers that would have been unheard of just a decade ago.

In recent weeks, police say they’ve seen an increase in violence within the addict community, and they think that means they’re making an impact in disrupting the flow of drugs into Vermont.

U.S. Attorney Coffin says it’s hard to ignore the role that prescription drugs have played in the heroin trade:

“The ready availability of prescription drugs, has I’m concerned, created a more significant opiate addict population in our community, and when those prescription drugs become unavailable because people can’t them through their physicians or they become expensive on the street, then people naturally switch to heroin,” Coffin said.

Local police chiefs say heroin is a problem in all parts of the state – not just in Chittenden County or in Rutland County, where officials held a similar event last week.

The frequent storyline that it’s drug dealers from bigger cities coming to Vermont largely holds true, but those dealers are getting help from locals.

“The supply is coming from out of state, but once the folks from out of state are here, they’re often times hooking up with folks we refer to as local talent, the local dealers that can hook them up with local people, make the connections,” Schirling explained.  

It’s an attractive place because of the price differential and geography heroin sells at a premium compared to bigger cities. In New York City, in Vermont it sells for $20-25. And we’re not far from those larger cities.

Schirling and Coffin say prevention is key, and part of the job in leading this effort is to really think hard about what is causing people fundamentally to do this.

Schirling says a key message is to be mindful, and he gave an example, “if you’re a parent and your child has been given a prescription because they had their wisdom teeth out, be mindful of whether you want to take an opiate prescription versus using an over the counter medication. Because for some people, their first use, first couple of uses can create a lifetime addiction.” 

Coffin agrees, “It’s more complicated than it was when we were in high school, the drugs available when I was in high school were bad enough, alcohol and marijuana, and these are quantum leaps worse and they come disguised as medicine,” Coffin said.

Over the next year and a half they want to see fewer thousand bag seizures, and fewer armed robberies, and treatment numbers up.

Vermonters struggling with drug abuse are increasingly turning to programs that encourage peer-to-peer support. New research has measured the success – and the savings to the state budget – from these programs, VPR’s John Dillon will have that story, Wednesday on Morning Edition.