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Battle Against Opiate Addiction Spurs Community Activism

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Charlotte Albright
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VPR
Filmmaker Bess O'Brien, third from left, advocates for more drug treatment in Vermont's correctional facilities. She belongs to a group of concerned citizens meeting in St. Johnsbury to tackle the impacts of opioid addiction.

This summer, several local communities are answering Gov. Peter Shumlin’s call of alarm about the growing opioid epidemic. About a dozen regional committees are now meeting throughout Vermont to craft specific action plans.

In the Northeast Kingdom, a group of concerned citizens call themselves “The Drug Abuse Resistance Team,” or DART 2.0. They meet once a month in a St. Johnsbury church basement. Members include social service providers, recovering addicts, drug and alcohol abuse counselors, a restorative justice director, even a hospital president.

This month’s meeting began with an update from the new director of BAART, a methadone clinic serving Newport and St. Johnsbury.  Jason Goguen says waiting times are being whittled down.

“Before the last couple of months, when we really made a push for it, it could be several months. But now everybody on this waitlist at both sites, I would say would be in in five weeks,” he said.

"Recovery is possible," one woman in long-term recovery told the group of community leaders. "But you have to enlist peers to help peers. It's hard to help people struggling with addiction unless you really have been where we are."

There are currently 24 waiting for methadone in Newport, and 35 in St. Johnsbury. Pregnant women get priority. So do people transferring from another clinic or leaving prison. But many members in this group want more drug recovery programs to start earlier, inside correctional facilities. They plan to make that case to the Shumlin administration.

Meanwhile, Susan Cherry, Director of Community Restorative Justice in St. Johnsbury, is helping to start a residential pilot project for parents with substance abuse problems who are leaving jail.

“And needing to have a time period where, with some kind of support and supervision, they can have a housing situation that will accommodate a child,” Cherry said.

A family has already been chosen to receive that kind of temporary housing assistance in St. Johnsbury.

The DART group also addressed problems arising from the high number of drug users showing up at the syringe exchange program run by Vermont Cares. Over the past three months, 19,000 needles were exchanged. Police were dismayed to find 16 on the street. Vermont Cares Regional Coordinator Theresa Vezina says users are being reminded to bring in all their used needles. There will also be a new hotline where people can report any litter.

“And then we will go and retrieve those improperly discarded needles within the communities so we’re looking right now at Caledonia County and also Orleans County,” Vezina said.

Even though such garbage is rare, compared to the large number of needles exchanged, the issue has generated unflattering newspaper stories. Some DART members worry that as Vermont gears up to face its drug problem, users who may be trying to quit feel stigmatized by the media blitz, and may think that recovery is hopeless.

“Recovery is possible,” one woman in long-term recovery told the group of community leaders. “But you have to enlist peers to help peers. It’s hard to help people struggling with addiction unless you really have been where we are,” she said.

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