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Heroin, pill abuse startle quiet Vermont

January 15, 2014

MONTPELIER, Vermont (AP) — Behind the facade of quaint villages and one of the lowest unemployment rates in the U.S., tiny Vermont is fighting with heroin and painkiller abuse, and leaders say it’s fueling crime and wrecking lives.

Federal statistics rank Vermont among the top 10 states for the abuse of painkillers and illicit drug use other than marijuana for people ages 18 to 25.

Last week, Gov. Peter Shumlin took the unusual step of devoting almost his entire State of the State address to the problem. He called on the Legislature to pass laws encouraging treatment and seek ideas on the best way to prevent people from becoming addicted. He also called for stiffer penalties for traffickers and people who use weapons in drug crimes.

“Anyone who doesn’t believe that they have an opiate challenge in their state is in denial,” Shumlin told The Associated Press after his speech. “This is primarily a public health crisis.”

Vermonters have no easy explanation for the rise in drug use. In his speech, Shumlin said the underlying cause of addiction was “a lack of hope and opportunity” that he proposed counteracting with good jobs and “the best early education in America.”

The numbers are startling for Vermont, with just 625,000 residents:

— It ranks second in the country for the rate of people being treated for opiate abuse, the Vermont Health Department says.

— Over the past five years, the number of serious drug crimes rose 46 percent, according to a study released in October by the Justice Center of the Council on State Governments.

— Last year, the number of heroin overdose deaths almost doubled from nine to 17.

— From 2009 through 2012, the number of calls reporting suspected child abuse or neglect caused by drug abuse to the Vermont Department of Children and Families increased about 38 percent, to 4,555, said Commissioner Dave Yacovone.

Many prescription painkillers belong to a class of drugs known as opioids, which also includes heroin, codeine and methadone. Many states are reporting increasing heroin problems as an unintended byproduct of efforts to crack down on painkiller abuse that didn’t include treatment of the underlying addiction, said Sherry Green, executive director of the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws.

“What they are doing, they are shifting to heroin because if they are already addicted to opiates they are going to ... switch to the next best thing, which is heroin,” she said.

Recovering addict Dustin Machia, 25, attended Shumlin’s speech. He quickly became addicted after being offered Oxycontin, a powerful opioid, in school.

He soon became a $500-a-day addict who stole $20,000 worth of equipment from the family farm before his mother introduced him to a local physician who helped him.

The demand for heroin is being quickly filled by out-of-state drug dealers or Vermonters who travel to cities in southern New England or beyond, where heroin can cost $5 to $10 per bag.

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