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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Prosecutor: More Work To Be Done On Heroin Problem

The state of Vermont has been dealing with an up tick in illegal drug use, with prescription drug abuse proving to be an especially difficult problem.

United States Attorney for Vermont Tris Coffin has made targeting drug traffickers a priority for his office. He spoke with VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb about the problem.

This spring, Coffin held a press conference with law enforcement, saying they wanted to send a message to drug traffickers that Vermont takes the crime seriously.

“We have worked hard with our state and local partners throughout the state and particularly in focused areas where this kind of trafficking is prevalent to arrest high level traffickers and bring them into federal court where they are looking at federal sanctions,” Coffin said.

Coffin said the trend is important to note. In 2009, there were fewer than 10 heroin defendants in the federal system in Vermont. In the last two years, it’s averaged about 30 defendants. So far in 2013, there are 65 defendants in the federal court system.

“That’s both evidence of the problem, and evidence of the response,” Coffin said.

“We target the higher level organizations. There are times when people who are involved in a higher level organization but are not themselves particularly high level and they may come our way, or they may be passed to the state for prosecution.”

Coffin believes there still a significant amount of work, including time and resources to slow the flow of drugs into Vermont, and his office is only one part of the solution.

“Law enforcement can only do one part of this. We need to dedicate significant amounts to treatment to get an addict population that we have in Vermont away from creating a demand for this drug. And also we really need to redouble our efforts on prevention to keep people from going down this path.”

Coffin’s office has been working with the Health Department’s prescription drug working group and works with other treatment providers like the HowardCenter.

Prescription drugs and heroin are both part of the problem. Coffin noted that before we saw the wave of heroin trafficking we saw a wave of opiate abuse and opiate-related crimes and opiate prescription medication distribution.

“I think it’s really part of one larger problem and that’s the pull that opiates have on someone who is addicted,” Coffin said. “The street value of prescription opiate medications is so much higher than heroin. Because of the economics of that situation, people make that jump into heroin. And people from outside of Vermont who can get cheaper heroin in urban locations will come up here and sell it to make a premium. But it’s still cheaper for an addict to buy heroin on the street than prescription drugs.”

Coffin said opiate addiction, whether prescription drugs or heroin, will drive people to commit crimes, and getting the money to feed that habit is an expensive proposition that fuels a lot of ancillary crime in the state.

The U.S. Attorney’s office focuses on the for-profit dealers in their investigations and prosecutions. Coffin says the addicts who are selling drugs to fuel their habit can often be turned around in drug treatment programs instead.

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