Frustration vented at drug forum

LONDONDERRY - Dr. Delores Barbeau, with the non-profit Neighborhood Connections, said she wished everyone was gathered at Flood Brook Union School on Monday night for a party. But a much more serious topic brought nearly 100 residents to the gym in a drizzly night: heroin. "We want this to be a night of information," she said.

This was the first of three public forums about what Governor Peter Shumlin called in his January State of the State Address, Vermont's "heroin epidemic." The first, held Monday, April 7, was about the drug problem in the Londonderry area. The second, held the following night on April 8, was a screening of the film "A Hungry Heart," a documentary film about heroin use across the state. On April 22, a question-and-answer session will take place, Barbeau said.

The panelists ranged from medical professionals, law enforcement officers and school officials. The night started with a presentation by Dr. Melanie Canon, who spoke about what heroin is and does to the body. Sandy Birch, the director of mental health services at Burr and Burton Academy, discussed how to talk to teens and younger children about drugs and alcohol, along with Victoria Silsby from the Collaborative, a community group which promotes substance-free youth and Jessica Berg, the school nurse at Flood Brook.

Pete Cobb, president of the Londonderry Volunteer Rescue Squad, said what the squad sees when they go on heroin or other drug related calls has changed.

"What we are seeing more and more of is out of control and combative patients. These are the cause of our greatest concern for various reasons," Cobb said. "These types of reactions in overdoses are chemically induced. They are often caused by the misuse of prescription drugs ... but nobody knows what we're seeing at this time. It's possibly bath salts, spice or synthetic marijuana ... We've also had calls involving meth and huffing as well."

The big issue with these calls, Cobb said, is there is really no treatment for these patients, especially when medical professionals don't know what they have taken.

Matt Wark, a physician's assistant in the Springfield Hospital Emergency Department, agreed with Cobb and said that when the patients are brought to the ER, most of the time no one knows what they're on. All the doctors and others can do is supportive care - or keeping the patient alive.

Wark said one of the most difficult parts of his job is when individuals come to his department seeking addiction treatment, but they are turned away.

"When someone finally decides they want help, the come to the ER ... and most of the time we turn them away with nothing," he said. "The mental health resources since the state hospital has closed down are essentially nonexistent. If someone is suicidal, then they have a small chance of getting into a detox program...but for someone who is young and hasn't seen a doctor, they may have significant psychiatric illness."

He said that is one of the most helpless feelings he and others in his field have, when someone reaches out for help and they are sent home "with a pamphlet of who to call in the morning." While the solution to this problem of lack of services was not the topic of the evening, Wark said, it is something that needs to be addressed.

Officer Greg Gould from the Winhall Police gave a different perspective, talking about the difficulties in building a drug case.

"We may know about something that's going on, but we have to be able to prove it in court. And to be able to prove it in court, there's a lot of steps we have to go that we're not violating people's civil rights," he said. "That said the police are working behind the scenes."

He said there is more to combating drugs than just making arrests, like trying to find how the drugs are getting into Vermont, as well as implementing drug take back boxes, where people can drop off unused and expired medication.

When introducing the two final speakers, Dr. Geoffrey Kane, chief of addiction services at the Brattleboro Retreat and Robert Smith, co-founder of Inter-Care and licensed clinical social worker, Barbeau said their presentations will help continue to start the conversation.

Kane said addiction is a problem that affects all of us in some way. Doctors and prescribers, he said are part of the problem.

"In the 90s we were told to treat pain, treat pain, treat pain and we will scold you if you don't," he said. "Don't worry about addiction. Well, that was bad advice ... and [prescribers and manufacturers] helped set us up for the heroin problem."

While some of the earlier advice to help stop drug use and possibly addiction - having dinner together as a family, talking to students in school, involvement in children's lives - was mentioned, Kane said he hopes for the day that young people discourage each other from using drugs and have a dialogue about the danger.

"We need less access to drugs and more access to treatment," he said.

Finally, before the floor was opened up to questions and comments, Smith said the families also need to be apart of the process of treating addiction.

"I think the missing piece has to do with the family...the community," he said. "95 percent of the time in my world - these are my num bers...when the change for the addict starts it's usually with the family changing first. So there's a lot of power that we can bring together if we had more support with family members."

When the floor was opened up for discussion, many individuals who spoke were angry and looking for a solution, not just a conversation. One woman stood up that had been robbed three years ago and brought up a different side of the drug problem.

"Our house was one of 10 or 11 houses in the area that was robbed, from the attic to the basement. Every box, every drawer, everything," she said. "Everyone said thank God you weren't in the house, you would have been killed. I am still shaking...I want to know what's happening with the pitbulls out there on the drugs? It's nice to deal with the children, it's nice to try and help and fix ... but what is this community doing about the vicious pitbulls that are out there and why can't they just get put away?"

Other audience members talked about the lack of police protection in the area. Londonderry does not have its own police force. Like many other small towns, it is covered by the Vermont State Police. The 45 minute to an hour response time to a call was brought up and people applauded when it was mentioned that better policing would be beneficial.

Finally, the police and lack of drug arrests in the area were once again brought up by a woman named Doutie.

"If I can drive through town and see it [the buying and selling of drugs] happening on a daily basis, something has got to be done," she said. "I shouldn't have to pull into the parking lot of the IGA and see it...If there are police in our community, something has got to be done. In six months, by now, you should have plenty of papers to prove your case that it's here."

She mentioned that this forum is a great, but just talking about the problem will not help. She said that nine times out of ten forums such as these result in no action and the audience applauded.

For more information about the forum scheduled for April 22, call 802-824-4343.


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