by Carla Occaso
WASHINGTON COUNTY — Curbing drug addiction is a priority among legislators and law enforcement, nevertheless it is on the rise. So law enforcement is fighting back with both arrests and offers of help.
From Local Police:
“I would say in general there is more heroin now than there has ever been,” said Barre City Police Chief Timothy Bombardier in a recent phone conversation with The Bridge. Opiate addiction, especially heroin, is making an impact all over Central Vermont (and beyond). The Bridge contacted Bombardier after a flurry of reports of heroin busts following lengthy investigations and sweeps in several towns (including Barre).
Bombardier pointed out that if you’ve had your car rifled through for petty change or are paying higher prices at stores — you’ve been touched by it. The situation is so prevalent, Bombardier says, that most likely everyone has a friend, or the child of a friend, relative or coworker suffering from addiction and still using — possibly selling — heroin.
“Everybody is at some point affected by drugs in Vermont — either directly or indirectly,” Bombardier said, adding, “Not what people want to hear, but you need to look at the big picture.” The recent arrests in Barre were not for those who were just using, it was for selling, and in one case, a federal gun crime. Therefore, while arrests for drug sales are on the rise, police urge addicted users who need help to seek it without fear of getting arrested.
Both Montpelier and Barre police departments are involved in a program called Operation Safe Catch, a joining of forces among local, state and federal law enforcement agencies along with mental health organizations. Barre City is also only one of three communities with a social worker on duty. That person reaches out to people with addiction, mental health issues and people who are “down on their luck.”
From the Montpelier Police Department website: “Operation Safe Catch remains in effect in Montpelier. If you know someone who is struggling with addiction, or you yourself are, please come to us and we will get you to treatment, not into trouble.”
Bombardier went into detail saying “if you walk through the front door (of the police department) and if you’ve got paraphernalia and drugs on you … we’ve got a place where you throw it away. And we can get you help.”
But if you are dealing, building up a client base and actively participating in a distribution network, then law enforcement is on your tail. So, Bombardier said, if you are one of those people who come to a town with thousands of dollars worth of heroin and are making contacts with locals, “you probably need to go to jail.” Bombardier’s Barre City Police Department is working closely with The Vermont State Police Drug Task Force and other agencies to investigate and bust dealers.
From State Police:
Recently, most of the actively working drug dealers are local Vermonters rather than the large out-of-state dealers who typically take blame. And things are getting worse.
“There is more heroin today than there was six months ago and there will be more six months from now,” said Captain John Merrigan, commander of Special Investigations with the Vermont State Police by phone to The Bridge Feb. 6. Merrigan said he has been with the state police for 18 years — nearly entirely within that unit.
“It is important for people to know that if you have a loved one who is suffering from this — a heroin addict is more likely than not involved in the distribution. That is what is perpetuating our problem. If we have ‘x’ number of addicts, then they need to sell it. People need to know that. Most likely your loved one — this kid you see as an addict — is very likely involved in heroin trafficking,” Merrigan said, adding, “No family is immune.” It touches all socioeconomic groups, towns, areas — and chances are — someone you care about is a dealer.
Some towns get bad raps, but drug sales go beyond borders. Lately, investigators are rounding up larger groups of mid-level Vermont-based dealers and publicizing it (recently 26 in Orleans County, 10 in Bennington County and eight in Rutland). Washington County just got swept as well. Between Jan. 30 and Feb. 3, the Vermont Drug Task Force rounded up seven individuals: six accused of selling hard drugs and one with a federal weapons offense. Six are under 30-years-old. Five are from Barre City or Barre Town.
Involved in arrests were Middlesex State Police Barracks, Barre City Police Department, Barre Town Police Department, Montpelier Police Department, Vergennes Police Department, State of Vermont Department of Children and Families, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Vermont is a ‘consumer’ state, not a ‘source’ state, Merrigan pointed out. Large quantities of heroin and cocaine come in from Mexico and South America and arrive first in New York City, eastern Massachusetts and Connecticut to be distributed throughout New England. The problem in neighboring states of New Hampshire, Upstate New York and Maine is just as bad, but Vermont has gotten a reputation — possibly because its population is so small that the problem stands out by comparison.
“Almost all our heroin is brought in by out of state sources. There is a relative handful of people that are doing this (roughly 200 to 300). Those are the people responsible for the big amounts. But it is Vermonters who are trafficking it,” Merrigan said.
People who are selling opiates to sustain their own habit are what Merrigan calls the “middle tier” in the drug distribution system. It works almost like a pyramid scheme, in which dealers have to find more and more people to sell to in order to get enough for their own habit free. An average addict uses around 6 to 10 bags a day, or 70 per week, at $10 per bag costs $700 per week. To afford that, a person would have to sell about 100 to 200 bags to get 70 for free. The profit margin is between 500 and 700 percent, depending on your street credibility.
Then, on the bottom tier of distribution, Merrigan describes “the street-level junkie going from injection to injection … constantly dope sick because they don’t have any money.” Young people may be turning to heroin to begin with because it is much easier to get than a six pack of beer if you are under 21.
“We have such high demand because there are lots of addicts. The only way to be able to afford it is to sell drugs. It is tough to hold down a job if you are addicted to heroin,” Merrigan said. “In the past we didn’t always draw the correlations. It is not the out-of-staters who are making it worse. It is us. It is Vermonters. It is that mid-level tier — who have historically been characterized as victims. They are not.”
Those middle level local dealers befriend the large out of state dealers, provide housing, introduce them to friends — potential customers — and drive them around in order to get a discount on drugs. People start using and selling usually from ages 16 to 17 up to 60.
Despite all that, if there is any good news in this story, it is that, so far, heroin doesn’t seem to have gotten a foothold in schools, unless it is extremely well hidden. Although the situation sounds dire, Merrigan said authorities are doing a good job and he believes the problem is solvable. “You’ll see a lot of arrest operations over the next few months. The sheer numbers are staggering.”
From a Former Addict:
The Bridge talked to one former user, who said he started at age 19. His intimate partner offered it to him and said, “It’s not that bad. People exaggerate,” and slyly snagged a new customer. The former user said he was addicted for four months, did “immoral” things to get his fixes, but then forced himself to quit. He said it was a tortuous few days of physical withdrawals followed by weeks of bad feelings over what he did to get the drugs. Specifically, asking relatives for money under false pretenses, stealing change and squeegeeing to make money. Also, he literally stole food from a baby.
From the Mother of an addict:
The Bridge talked to the mother of a current opiate addict and learned she feels nearly hopeless. “There needs to be more rehabs. There needs to be longer term rehabs,” said Lorelei Lissor, the mother of an addict who has been in and out of jail for crimes related to his drug use since age 15. He is now 32. His opiate addiction was not to heroin, but to Oxycontin. She said he has been to every rehab program in the state, but inevitably succumbs to addiction again. “The last time he went I honestly had some hope, but..he’s back in jail,” she said. “I know they have to do it themselves. They have to do it themselves. Clinics are fine and good, but I don’t believe that is the answer for everyone. When I saw Maple Leaf had closed, I was like, ‘No way.’ (Maple Leaf Treatment Center, one of Vermont’s three residential addiction treatment facilities, closed its doors suddenly on Feb. 9).
Editor’s note: Part of this story ran previously on The Bridge website: montpelierbridge.com