Vermont Battling a 'Full-Blown Heroin Crisis'


MONTPELIER, Vt. -- America has a heroin problem, especially in the Northeast. The recent death of Academy-award winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman is by no means an isolated case and officials have reported a spike in the abuse of the drug in New England.

It's a cold, snowy day in Vermont's capital of Montpelier. The historic statehouse surrounded by a blanket of white looks like a picture postcard.

Anyone taking in the peaceful scene would never know Vermont is in crisis.

Gov. Peter Shumlin said his state is experiencing "a full-blown heroin crisis."

State in Crisis

Shumlin sounded the alarm earlier this year when he said "in every corner of our state, heroin and opiate drug addiction threatens us."

Vermont's governor devoted his entire State of the State Address, all 34 minutes, to drug addiction. He explained the heavy toll it takes on the economy and lives.

"As far as I'm concerned this is one of the real battles that we're facing that we've got to win, and we've got to do that by changing the discussion and changing the policy," he said.

The numbers tell the story, ranking tiny Vermont among the top 10 states in the country for the abuse of painkillers and illicit drug use.

Will Gates, a student at the University of Vermont and an alpine skiier, died of a heroin overdose in 2009.

"I never knew a human being could feel this much pain," his father, Skip Gates, said. "It's... It has redefined the rest of my life."

Shumlin said last year the number of deadly heroin overdoses nearly doubled from the year before.

On top of that, the need for treatment of opiate addiction has jumped more than 770 percent since 2000.

Bob Bick oversees mental health and substance abuse services at Vermont's largest treatment center, the HowardCenter Substance Abuse Services.

"Certainly, the growing and significant impact of opiate addiction has been profound in this state," Bick said.

In 2002, the HowardCenter opened its medication-assisted treatment program with 70 patients.

Today it serves more than 720.

Why Vermont?

Part of the reason Vermont stands out in this situation deals with how legislators addressed the state's problem with prescription painkillers.

"For various reasons, the laws were tightened up on those products, and they became harder to get," Barbara Cimaglio, with the Vermont Department of Health, said.

"All of sudden we saw a resurgence in heroin use and heroin on the streets. We saw that it was being sold for very cheap prices to offer people an alternative to these high-priced pharmaceuticals," she added.

Heroin dealers from larger areas like Boston and New York City have become suppliers to Vermont and other parts of New England.

Recently, the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman raised even more awareness on the problem. Hoffman was found in his New York City apartment with a syringe still in his arm and envelopes of heroin all around. 

Police call him a victim of New York's heroin problem.

In the last few years, officials say heroin use has dramatically increased across New England, leading to overdoses, deaths and an increase in crime among addicts.

"The other thing we've done is looked at the home invasions and burglaries into people's homes and really upped the penalties there," Sen. Richard Sears, D-Vt., said.
The heroin epidemic is spreading beyond New England with lawmakers in nearly every state proposing legislation to fight what is now considered a public health crisis.

What Can be Done?

Vermont's governor wants more focus on treatment rather than justice.

Drug and alcohol counselor Dana Poverman agreed.

"In addition to the law enforcement efforts, if we can get to the point where we can provide treatment on demand, the people do not have to wait and sometimes die, trying to get into treatment," Poverman said.

State leaders say unfortunately the church hasn't been a factor in the fight against Vermont's heroin addiction.

Josh Masters hopes to change that. He heads up Celebrate Recovery at Burlington's Essex Alliance Church.

"I want to encourage other churches to reach out into the community and remember that we're all broken; we all come from a broken place," Masters said.

"People looked past my brokenness and looked at me through God's eyes instead of the world's eyes, and that's how we need to look at people in our community who are struggling," he continued.

"We're all struggling with something, so get out there, let people know that Jesus cares and that we can walk along with you through your recovery," he said.

And, at the same time, help rescue those who have fallen prey to a heroin crisis.

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