BENNINGTON/RUTLAND COUNTIES - The decriminalization of marijuana, which went into effect on July 1, may have some up in arms, but law enforcement officials - among others - have indicated that there are more pressing drug related issues that need to be addressed in the southern half of the state.

The use of hard drugs - heroin in particular - is on the rise, which has resulted in greater societal problems. Crime - petty theft in particular - has been on the rise as a result of drug use.

"Where we see a lot more increases that we believe are related to the economy and the use of drugs is some of our quality of life crimes like the burglaries and what have you because a lot of the burglaries that we're dealing with people are taking stuff that's easily turned in, you know like money, jewelry, stuff like that," said Commander of the Shaftsbury barracks for the Vermont State Police, Lieutenant Reginald Trayah. "They can make a quick turnaround with that stuff and then use that for either their quality of life issues, you know their drugs, paying for rent, doing whatever."

According to State Senator Richard Sears (D - Bennington) it is estimated that it takes about $97,000 a year for a heroin addict to support their habit. Given that expense Sears said it's understandable that crime has been on the rise.

Sears is currently working with Governor Peter Shumlin as well as others in an attempt to devise a way to reduce the trend. One of the things that is needed, Sears said, is treatment. However, that is something that is lacking in western part of the state. Sears said the state Senate is attempting to address the issue in bill H.522 sent to them by the House of Representatives.

"We added in sections that would allow doctors to become affiliated with methadone clinics and be able to prescribe right from their offices if they wanted to and they became expert[s] in that and that could help," said Sears. "We're looking at that, we're also looking at the hub and spoke model where each doctor would be provided with case managers to help them with anybody who's addicted on their case load. That is a real priority to get that hub and spoke going, but it's been much slower than most of us would have liked."

The influx of heroin into Bennington and Rutland Counties has been on the rise over the past the few years. The spike in the drug's use is in part tied to the use - and abuse - of powerful prescription drugs like Vicodin, Percocet, Oxycodone and Oxycontin, according to Chief of the Manchester Police Department Michael Hall.

"One of the things that increased the usage of heroin in particular was we had a pretty good problem with prescription drugs," said Hall. "Some of the Oxycontin, Oxycodone medications that were being improperly used and through the advancement in the manufacturing of these pills they devised a mechanism which hampered its ability to be misused by way of its manufacture. And what happened at that point was people started turning toward heroin because it was a much cheaper and much more readily available drug of choice."

Although there was no one demographic, Hall said the majority of the people they are encountering that are using the drug - and selling it as well - were either in their teens or twenties.

Chief of the Rutland Police Department James Baker said the use of opiate drugs and mental health issues are the two biggest problems the city is facing. In specific cases, Baker said it is often difficult to tell if the mental health issues existed before the use of the drugs or if the use of the drugs caused the mental health issues. Still, Baker said he continues to be surprised by the drug problems that Rutland is currently facing.

"The level of substance abuse that we face in Rutland City, I've said this publicly many times, is mind boggling," Baker said in an interview earlier this year. "I did a neighborhood walk on Sunday around a two block area in a heavy residential area in the city and I couldn't walk every other house without having a conversation with someone who is currently struggling with an addiction problem, has fought off an addiction problem and is in sobriety or has a relative or a friend who's addicted."

Bennington County has seen more drug activity of late. On Jan. 16 law enforcement officials conducted Operation County Strike - an initiative they had been working on since mid August 2012. The operation cost $115,000 to carry out - $37,000 of which was spent directly on drug purchases that included heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, morphine, hallucinogenic mushrooms opiates, prescription pills and marijuana as well as informant information.

Over 120 individual controlled purchases of illegal drugs were made. In the end, 68 defendants were arrested resulting in a total of 467 criminal charges. In 2011, the Manchester Police Department arrested 15 people for crimes related to drugs. That number nearly doubled in 2012 with police arresting 28 people. Around the midway point of this year, those numbers were somewhat lower, with only nine people being arrested.

While heroin use is currently on the rise in Bennington County as well as in other parts of the state, it is not the first time the state has experienced problems with the use of heroin.

According to a state substance abuse and mental health study, Vermont had 178 hospital admissions related to heroin in 1998 - which ranked 36th in the nation including Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico. The numbers steadily continued to rise, reaching a peak of 877 admissions in 2002.

While the number of admissions was significantly lower than other states such as New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, Connecticut, and California who routinely had somewhere between 15,000 to 68,000 admissions in any given year between 1998 until 2008, Vermont ranked among the top 20 states in the nation - including Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico - per 100,000 admissions for ages 12 and above.

In 1998, there were 35 admissions per 100,000 in Vermont - ranking Vermont 20th in the nation. By 2002 though, Vermont ranked ninth in the nation with 167 per 100,000. Furthermore, with the exception of 2007 when they ranked 16th, Vermont ranked in the top 15 in the nation per 100,000 admissions every year from 2000 until 2008.

It's not just the use of heroin that is on the rise though. Hall said the use of prescription drugs has increased. In addition, he said that the Manchester Police Department has seen an increase in the use of "designer drugs" such as synthetic marijuana substitutes - which he said is created by taking oregano and soaking it with a chemical substance and smoking it to get high. Bath salts are another substance that Hall said they have been encountering people using more possibly in part because it is easier to obtain.

Trayah, said the increase in drug use has been "dramatic." Prior to last year, Trayah said that the Clandestine Lab Team - of which he is the commander - had never dealt with any more than two meth labs in any one year. From December 2011 to December of 2012 though they dealt with six. So far this year, the Clandestine Lab Team has dealt with three, Trayah said.

The results the police have been getting lately- such as in Operation County Strike - are not only attributable to increased use, but greater enforcement as well.

"Up until recently there was a specific team associated with this area that we were able to utilize to help do drug investigations and when they hit the ground running they realized that this was some untapped area down here, or at least it hadn't been tapped for a long time," said Trayah. "So, I think what you saw in the sweep was a huge result of some of the work that was being done by a select few officers within the county."

While arresting drug users is one way to address the problem, both Baker and Hall said they do not believe that it is the only way that the problem is going to be corrected.

"We're not arresting our way out of this," said Baker. "There has to be intervention at every level. Schools, streets, neighborhoods, faith communities. There has to be an aggressive enforcement, but there also has to be a settings of norms in communities that you make very clear to individuals that the community has a certain set of norms and if those norms are violated there's got to be some kind of consequence for it."