Talking Smack: Next Steps

It's not news any more that Vermont has a heroin problem. More precisely, individuals who one way or another find themselves drawn into lives of addiction to an opiate have big problems, which often leads them to finance those needs through criminal activities. Then it becomes a law enforcement and safety question for wider and wider circles of people.

Gov. Peter Shumlin attracted nationwide attention in January when he made the growing heroin epidemic in Vermont the centerpiece of his State of the State message. That has been followed in rapid order by a series of news articles and heightened media interest. The contrast between a heroin scourge and little old charming Vermont, where life supposedly moves in the slow lane amid covered bridges and maple syrup, was a compelling one.

More recently, the town of Bennington caught a black eye from the New York Times, which ran a story two weeks ago about how the "epidemic" had overtaken the picturesque New England town. It outlined the struggles of several people caught in the sway of addiction and their efforts to break free of it. It was not happy or pleasant reading. And if there are folks 20 miles to the south of Manchester struggling with those issues, it's a safe bet plenty of people up at this end of the county are struggling with them as well. This is not just a Bennington problem, or a Rutland problem, another Vermont community that has been caught in the heroin spotlight. It's a statewide, and even nationwide problem. It's a Manchester and the Mountains problem too.

In Rutland's case though, the focus is moving away from small-Vermont-city-caught-in-the-throes-of-drug-epidemic (which is most likely still the case) to the remarkable community-based solutions being developed there to counteract it. A coalition of law enforcement and community groups have formed an alliance to share insights and resources. That same multi-pronged approach may well be adopted by our neighbors in Bennington, who have been stung by the image of their town portrayed in The Times' story and don't want to go through what Rutland has endured for the past several years.

The point is this: It's time to stop wringing our hands and do something concrete about it. Leaders of the educational, law enforcement, counseling, and yes, business communities should start thinking along the lines of what can be done in the next 3-4 months to make a dent in this problem. Economic development is one key that is often overlooked. People who live without clear job prospects or without hope for a middle class lifestyle are in a high risk class. They are also potentially productive members of the workforce who are being lost.

There's plenty of evidence to suggest that Manchester and surrounding towns might do well to consider preemptively, if it's not already too late, adopting a broad-based coalition approach involving police, education and community support groups before we read about Manchester being the next hot spot in the heroin wars. People of all walks of life can drift into excessive drug use, and wander too far in to get out by themselves.

We were happy to see the state Senate pass S. 295 last week, and send that bill over to the House, where it should get speedy passage. The legislation calls for setting up a process whereby addicts are diverted from the criminal justice system into treatment for their illness. The bill also would help provide uniform risk assessment frameworks across the state to help determine bail amounts as well. Since the bill arose from Gov. Shumlin's State of the State message, one may safely assume it will be quickly signed into law. Then comes the hard part - making it work. What we know already is that we can't arrest our way out of the problem. It's not a long-term solution, and it's prohibitively expensive. Incarceration costs money, lots of it.

How about offering a deal to first-time offenders - instead of jail, go in for treatment and speak to groups of high school students where they would tell their stories. How did I, a regular student with hopes and dreams, get sucked into the drug vortex? Students who may be at a fragile, vulnerable point need to get scared and re-educated about the death sentence that is heroin addiction. Somewhere along the way over the last 50 years, the narcotic lost its stigma. That needs restoration.

One big component of making the new law, once signed, become effective down here is some better treatment options available closer to home. A clinic of this nature has been proposed before for Bennington, and for even longer in Rutland before one opened last November. There was local resistance to opening such treatment centers in both communities for fear they would attract, rather than help, those addicted. Fortunately, that attitude seems to be shifting, as denial that a problem exists ebbs.

A methadone clinic that could stabilize and then refer addicted patients to other facilities for longer term treatment should be a high priority for southern Vermont, close enough to serve the Northshire. Or maybe it could be here. Why not?

The good news is that we are recognizing a problem exists in our midst, and coalescing to do something about it. That's the first step. But there are more to take. Communities everywhere are realizing the menace within their midst. No one caught in heroin's sway should feel they walk alone through this, because while it is first and foremost an individual problem, it's also a community problem. In the end, we are our brother's and sister's keepers. There is no room for smugness or false belief that this can't happen here.


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