by Carla Occaso
WASHINGTON COUNTY — We Vermonters are fueling the drug economy rather than the relative handful of large out-of-state dealers who typically take blame. And things are getting worse. But hopefully that is about to change, according to a Vermont State Police Drug Task Force commander.
“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 the investigations 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.
Even picture perfect postcard towns are touched. “Woodstock. Most people consider it a quaint, nice, bucolic town. It has a heroin problem, too,” said Merrigan. Some towns get bad raps, but drug sales go beyond borders.
Lately, investigators are rounding up larger groups of mid-level Vermont-based dealers (recently 10 in Bennington County and eight in Rutland) and publicizing it. 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.
Arrests in the Washington County area followed months of investigation. They were assisted by the 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, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms while executing these arrests. This enforcement action took place following numerous drug investigations into the distribution of heroin and cocaine.
Those arrested include Alexis Montoya, 22, Barre City, sale of heroin (3) counts; Tyler Knapp, 27, Orange, sale of heroin (1) count; Michael Raymond , 27, Vergennes, sale of heroin (3) counts; Michael Luce, 27, Barre City, Weapons Offense, user in possession of a firearm — federal offense; Mindy Garneau, 28, Barre City, sale of cocaine (1) counts; Bradley Nisen, 36, Barre City, sale of heroin (1) count, sale of cocaine (3) counts — federal offense; Bridget Clover, 22, Barre Town, sale of heroin (2) counts.
Defendants were processed and issued criminal citations to appear at the Washington Superior Court of Vermont, Criminal Division. Investigations are being prosecuted by the Washington County State’s Attorney’s Office, State of Vermont Attorney General’s Office, and the United States Attorney’s Office District of Vermont.
The Bridge spoke to Scott Waterman, Vermont State Police Public Information Officer, asking if there were more busts than usual. He said it is not so much that there are more, but that the police want to increase public awareness. “They are trying to get the word out a bit more than they have in the past. There may be more outreach updates,” Waterman said. Waterman referred The Bridge to Captain Merrigan of the drug task force.
Merrigan said he wants people to know how drug distribution works because investigation and enforcement efforts have been going under the radar.
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.”