Heroin moves to the countryside

Vermont has recognized its heroin epidemic and is preparing a vigorous response.

Michael Bonfigli /The Christian Science Monitor
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks at a press conference in Washington, D.C. in October 2013. On Jan. 8 Governor Shumlin used his entire state of the state message to raise an alarm about the explosive growth of heroin use in the state – and to offer ways to counter it.

Vermont means green mountains in summer and powder-white ski slopes in winter. Hillside herds of dairy cattle and rustic rural inns.

And now, unfortunately, it’s also associated with a heroin epidemic.

Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin used his entire 34-minute state of the state message to the Vermont Legislature yesterday to raise an alarm about the explosive growth of heroin use in the state – and to suggest new steps to counter it. He acknowledged that one of the most important moves – preventing addiction in the first place – will also be the hardest. He plans to gather more ideas on possible solutions in the coming months.

Vermont doesn’t stand alone, of course. Coast to coast states are struggling with drug addiction as well. Nationally, more people die from drug overdoses than from highway accidents; since 1990 the rate of overdose deaths has tripled. Coincidentally, yesterday Gov. John Kasich (R) of Ohio announced a new state anti-drug-abuse effort, called Start Talking. Ohio saw 800 deaths last year from heroin overdoses.

Governor Shumlin hauled out his own list of grim statistics. In Vermont, treatment for opiate abuse has risen 770 percent since 2000. In just the past year, treatment for heroin addiction has risen a dramatic 40 percent, and deaths from heroin overdoses have doubled. Nearly 80 percent of those jailed in Vermont, he said, are now or have been drug addicts.

Perhaps even more sobering were the stories he told of lives ruined by drug addiction. One Vermont teen started using Oxycontin in the 10th grade and was soon addicted to a $500-a-day habit. He stole $20,000 in farm equipment from his own family to pay for his drugs. And not long ago another young man, an undergraduate at the University of Vermont who was a science major and member of the school’s ski team, died of a heroin overdose. Because the quality and potency of each batch of black-market heroin varies widely, even those who think they are cautious users can accidentally and suddenly overdose at any time.

Both stories sought to shatter perceptions that heroin addiction is a problem only for large urban areas. In fact, Vermont represents a particularly lucrative market for heroin dealers, the governor said, who find that they can sell a bag of heroin that would fetch $6 on the streets of New York City for $30 or more there. Each Vermont addict yields five times the income from the same amount of “product.”

Ironically, a crackdown on the abuse of prescription drugs to “get high” has priced heroin back into the market, despite its obvious dangers.

Shumlin offered a package of ideas meant to energize Vermonters as they seek to reverse this looming health and safety disaster. He urged a crackdown on drug traffickers who bring heroin into the state and on those who use guns while stealing to fund their addiction.

But he also noted that viewing individual addiction more as an illness than a crime is not only compassionate but fiscally responsible. Putting a heroin addict in a Vermont prison costs about $1,120 a week, he said, but only $123 pays for a week of treatment at a state-funded treatment center.

Vermont is right to look hard at the reasons why drug addiction is growing and to try to get at its root causes. Certainly lack of a job or other personal crises can bring on a desire to escape from reality into a drug haze.

Strong, loving, and communicating families provide one buffer against an ill-advised experimentation with drugs. So does education about their ill effects: Shumlin has asked that former addicts and others seen in a new documentary film about heroin addiction in Vermont, called “The Hungry Heart,” tour all the state’s high schools with their anti-heroin message.

The film depicts a doctor trying to help addicted teens. According to a synopsis on the film’s website, it “shines a light on the healing power of conversation and the need for connection that many of these young addicts yearn for but do not have in their lives.”

Shumlin called for an application of old-fashioned “Vermont ingenuity” and “thinking big” to find fresh, effective approaches to the problem, especially in preventing addiction in the first place.

That’s sound advice for officials and citizens facing this challenge everywhere.

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