Inside the Heroin Epidemic Sweeping Through Vermont
Vermont's heroin epidemic has gotten so bad that cops, drug counselors, and addicts now say it's easier to get dope than marijuana. Everyone we know has a heroin story, and hardly any of them have happy endings.
A view of St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Photo by Gina Tron
One Saturday afternoon this fall, the two of us drove toward Burlington, Vermont, on a narrow highway that snakes through the Green Mountains. Rolling fields gave way to hardwood forests, maple trees aflame with red and orange leaves—the kind of bucolic scenery that brings in nearly 14 million tourists and $1.7 billion of their money every year. Our destination was a small farm in Colchester that looks like something right out of a postcard: a red barn, a sign that said "Community Pig Roast," even chickens and dogs running around in the yard.
Josh was waiting for us at a table on the porch in a flat-brim hat and hoodie. He's a Vermonter born and bred, a 23-year-old with an easygoing stoner charisma familiar to anyone who grew up in the area. The stories he told, on the other hand, sound like they could have come out of the worst drug- and crime-infested neighborhoods of a big city.
He's run heroin to Vermont from New Jersey six times in the last 18 months. His suppliers hand Josh 25 bricks of the stuff and tell them it's his responsibility until he gets to Vermont and to "hide it good." Heroin is much cheaper in the big cities to the south than it is in the Green Mountain State, and Josh takes full advantage of this—he can make $600 off of $10 worth of the raw he buys. He doesn't have much in the way of professional ethics. "I've ripped people off by throwing hot cocoa in an empty bag," he told us. "Scoop a little dirt off the ground and throw that in there, dude."
Unloading the dope in Vermont is a cinch, since practically everybody Josh knows uses heroin. "There's nothing else to do," he explained. "It's easier to find heroin than it is to find weed nowadays." Josh got into the drug when he was 21; he first tried it when a friend offered him some to cheer him up during a bad day. Now as soon as he scores dope he goes to his car and snorts it. "I don't really care if anybody sees me because I know they probably do it too," he said, before shrugging and flashing a bright smile.
One time, Josh and his friends got wind of an out-of-stater who was hocking dope out of a motel room, so they kicked in the door, sprayed him in the face with WD-40, and robbed him. Another time, he watched a friend's girlfriend overdose on his living room floor. The neighbors watched as Josh and his friend loaded her unconscious body into his buddy's truck, "I was like, 'Dude get her up and get her in the fucking truck and drive down the road,'" Josh recalled. "'You're not calling the ambulance here.'" Within 24 hours she was back at his house asking for more heroin.
Josh, who says he's smuggled heroin into Vermont six times in 18 months, sitting on his neighbor's porch. Photo by Hannah Palmer Egan
Vermont has always had relaxed attitudes toward drugs. When we were growing up there during the 1990s, everyone smoked weed and some of our friends' parents even grew the stuff. According to surveys conducted in 2010 and 2011 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Vermont leads the nation in illicit drug use per capita. That's not particularly surprising or alarming when it comes to marijuana, but the wave of heroin that's surged into the state is cause for concern.
Police officers, drug counselors, and drug addicts all agree that heroin is easier and cheaper to come by than pot these days. Some people even said heroin is becoming socially acceptable the way marijuana is. On a recent trip back to our home state, we found heroin stories everywhere we looked.
From a family friend: "Jim just got back—he was up with his son, detoxing him from heroin. He was there for a week, keeping an eye on him."
From a stepsister: "The kids I used to nanny for, their dad was really into that, he's actually in federal prison for trafficking—drove down to Hartford to pick up a bunch of drugs and got pulled over on his way home, and I don't know why, but he told [the cops] he was bringing heroin back up to Vermont. Guess he thought they'd let him go if he just told them or something."
The night we arrived, we turned on WCAX, the state's largest news channel, to hear news of a traffic stop on Interstate 91 that led to the arrest of six people for heroin trafficking. The cops found more than 1,000 bags of heroin, worth around $30,000, inside a Nissan Maxima. Just weeks before, the Vermont State Police had swept through Franklin County, in the northwestern part of the state, and nabbed 30 dealers selling the stuff.
Then, on October 18, police caught two men from New York with 9,000 bags of heroin, one of the biggest busts in state history. US Attorney Tristram Coffin subsequently told the Burlington Free Press that during the first nine months of 2013, 65 people facing heroin-trafficking charges appeared before federal judges in the state—twice as many as appeared in all of 2012, and eight times as many as in 2009.
Lieutenant Matthew Birmingham, the head of the Vermont State Police narcotics task force, which was responsible for the recent busts, said opiates are the top drug problem statewide. That makes sense—rural New England's cold, dark winters and isolation make it ideal downer country. Oxycontin was a big problem over the past decade and a half, but when the manufacturer changed the formula in 2010 to make it harder to crush and dissolve, heroin became the drug of choice.
Birmingham told us that recently, demand for the drug has exploded. "In the early part of the last decade, we were seeing a bundle here, a bundle there, and that was a big deal," he said. "Now we're seeing thousands of bags at a time, multiple raw ounces and grams, levels of heroin that we've never seen before. That's indicative of a problem."
A central Vermont cop, who asked to remain anonymous because he did not have permission to speak to the press, said heroin mainly comes up from Hartford, Connecticut, and Springfield, Massachusetts. Lately, however, he's seen dealers from New York City and Philadelphia creep into his jurisdiction. "They set up a distribution center in a cheap motel, and have the locals run for them," he told us.
That's standard procedure for bigger dealers, who use local users as both customers and distributors. "Addicts create this local network that's established for any out-of-state source to come in and hook into in any location," said Birmingham. "From there, they can distribute widely."
The big-city dealers are also bringing their big-city problems with them. With out-of-state drug retailers coming in to meet surging local demand, competing traffickers—some of them organized and violent—are starting to stake out territory in the Green Mountains.
"There are real and legitimate organized gangs and organized criminal groups that are operating drug rings... and establishing themselves in Vermont," said Birmingham. "It's disconcerting to us in that you're bringing a very different criminal element. They are usually highly organized—and they're usually armed."
It used to be mostly local people going down to cities to bring drugs back. Now, according to Birmingham, dealers are coming to Vermont to set up shop. "You're dealing with guns, you're dealing with gangs, and it becomes problematic for the citizens of Vermont, too," he told us. "This kind of activity now exists here and with it comes violence and shootings and all kinds of different things that happen on the streets."
Crime statistics can be misleading, but during the 1990s, there were usually between 550 and 700 incidents of violent crime in the state every year. Since 2008, that number has risen to about 900, according to the Vermont public record archive.
Now the state is facing problems familiar to any community luckless enough to find itself fighting a serious drug problem. Heroin is brought in because that's what Vermont's drug users want, but with heroin come turf wars, more addiction, and more people getting arrested and filling up the prisons. It's a knot that's almost impossible to untangle.
"We have to focus on demand reduction in this state," Birmingham said. "If we do not focus on demand reduction, we just can't stop the supply—like any black market. You just can't do it."
Anthony Pettigrew, the spokesman for the DEA's New England office in Boston, said most of the heroin in the area is from South America and comes to the US through Mexico or Miami. In recent years, he added, there's been a sharp increase in the drug's purity—and since the drugs are better, more people are trying them. "People who may not have tried it before, are trying it now, because they can snort it and they don't have to inject it anymore," he said.
It's difficult for police to solve the problem of heroin being so cheap and powerful that everyone wants to try it. Birmingham said demand reduction is an issue that the state as a whole, not just the cops, needs to deal with. "This is a very complicated problem, and there is not one magic solution that's going to solve the problem," he said. "It involves addiction, it involves money, it involves controlled substances... We have such a high population [of addicts] that it has to be addressed on a medical issue, as a public health crisis. [The police] don't deal with addiction, the courts don't deal with addiction; that's not our area."
A Vermont resident shooting up. Photo courtesy of Josh
Our central Vermont source said that the city of Barre has so many corrections facilities nearby that there are always lots of people on furlough in the motels. He named the Budget Inn, located on the outskirts of downtown near the police station, as a known distribution center. He said we should definitely stay away from there; it's been busted for heroin multiple times.
So when we get to Barre, we headed straight to the Budget Inn. We posted up in the parking lot of the deteriorating, rusting motel and smoked cigarettes and waited for something to happen. Some of the room doors had gaping holes where knobs should be. It was around noon on a Friday and nothing was happening.
Then, the door of one of the usable rooms opened. A middle-aged woman crawled out, like a sloth. She pulled herself onto a battered lawn chair and lighted a cigarette. Her blue-black eyeliner ran into the creases of her face. Soon, a man at least ten years her junior emerged from the same open door, eating a Snickers bar and drinking a tall energy drink. His body wobbled a bit in the sunlight as if unused to walking.
We went over and asked them if they knew of a cheap bar we could hit up for a drink. They were both slurring but friendly. "There are plenty of bars but you two are better off just going to the liquor store and going back somewhere to drink," the woman said in her husky voice. The guy agreed and said the beers in the bars are too expensive. We asked how much. He said they're three bucks.
Later, we had a drink with an old classmate, 32-year-old Andria Rossi, at Jerry's Sports Bar. It's one of those places that you have to know about in order to find—windowless, small, and dark. Rossi has been to rehab five times and is now clean, working as a machine operator for a stonecutter. She shot up for the first time when she was 16. Back then, in the late 90s, Oxy was most people's drug of choice, but heroin offered more bang for your buck.
"Why spend 80 dollars on an Oxy 80 when you can get a bag of heroin for 20 bucks?" Rossi asked. She said she was totally functional on heroin: she could work harder and socialize easier when high. "I function good when I'm fucked up on any opiate," she said.
Another friend of ours, a 30-year-old now tending bar at a joint on a sleepy stretch of the Connecticut River, has a similar story. He had a prescription-drug habit that turned into a heroin habit when he couldn't afford the pills. Even now, he said the drugs weren't really a problem, aside from the expense—actually, they made him a better, more energetic, and friendly bartender.
He complained that the movies and television misrepresent what it's like to be on heroin: "The thing about junkies is that they're exactly the same [as everyone else]," he said. "You can't see any difference, you can't tell at all."
So there could be tons of people walking around here all doped up on heroin and we'd never know the difference?
"Yeah, totally—that's exactly what I'm saying. There are tons of people around here, right now, I guarantee you, walking around on heroin and you'd never know it."
Nancy Bassett in the AA/NA Meeting room at Kingdom Recovery Center in St. Johnsbury. Photo by Hannah Palmer Egan
The Northeast Kingdom is one of Vermont's most beautiful areas. It's where the country opens out into forests and lakes and rivers, where you could camp out for days without seeing another person. It's also one of the state's poorest regions—you can imagine yourself here, broke, jobless, without any options, and picking up a heroin habit alarmingly easily. Nancy Bassett, a co-coordinator at the Kingdom Recovery Center, told us that a lot of young people who live in poverty here slide into using alcohol and drugs. Bassett is gray-haired and wearing sandals when we meet her—she speaks gently, like your best friend's hippie grandma. Like a few others we meet at the recovery center, she's missing multiple teeth.
According to Bassett, back in the 70s heroin was available but not as widespread as it is today. The users are getting younger and younger, too. "In the last two or three years, it's become more prevalent," she said.
She knows what she's talking about—in the 90s, Bassett and her husband trafficked small amounts of heroin up from Massachusetts. In 2000, she got arrested for it as she crossed the border, which made it a federal crime. She felt like she got caught in a "really bad TV movie," she said. "Then, on my third day in the drug program, I get called to the chaplain's office and I was told that my husband had overdosed and died the night before." He was a Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD and depression—he had dropped off Bassett at prison and then went home, took his dope, and died. The loneliness was too much for him to face, she said. Their son found his body.
Bassett told us that highways 91 and 93 are pipelines bringing drugs into the area from all the major New England cities. She also said it's very easy to spot when dealers come in from out of state to open up shop, mentioning something that a lot of times goes unsaid when people talk about heroin dealing. "This is a very white state," she laughed.
Vermont is the second whitest state in the US, actually, with 96.7 percent of the population being caucasian. Inevitably, a lot of the dealers who roll in from New York, Philadelphia, and elsewhere are black. Many people we interviewed for this article equated the influx of drugs with black and hispanic people moving into the state, which speaks to another ugly feature of life in Vermont, the under-the-surface racism.
Eric Blaisdell, a local reporter who has written about cases of prejudice in the state, said that many Vermonters don't encounter any non-white people except for the drug dealers. "They overlook the two white guys who were caught robbing houses to feed their drug addiction," he said, "or the white guy who was caught dealing crack and smoking it in his home a few feet from his infant." (For what it's worth, everyone we spoke with who admitted they were involved in trafficking drugs into Vermont was white.)
Recovering addicts outside the Kingdom County Recovery Center. Photo by Hannah Palmer Egan
One night we headed to an apartment in Barre to meet Jen. Her story is typical of that of a lot of Vermont heroin stories: Her father wasn't around when she was a girl, her mother suffered a mental breakdown, and after one of her good friends died tragically and unexpectedly, she started drinking, smoking weed, and taking pills. When she was 15 she moved out on her own. "I started living with this guy and started selling dope to make money on the side," she said. "I never used it at first." At one point, she went down to Springfield, Massachusetts, with a friend who didn't tell her that the point of the trip was to bring heroin back to Vermont. She didn't realize it until they were already doing it.
Today, the 31-year-old describes her younger self as being vulnerable and needing money. She feels like she was taken advantage of. "I could go down to the city, buy a bundle for $30, come up here and sell that same bundle for $300," she told us. "It was what was shown to me as a legitimate way to provide." For people who don't have any other options, heroin is a lucrative business, far more profitable than selling pot. The problem is, it never ends well. Jen was caught with drugs in the early 2000s, when she was 19, and was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison, which saved her by forcing her to give the habit up. She soon after became pregnant with her first child, who is now nine years old. "Childbirth was nothing compared to kicking heroin," she said.
As Jen told us all this, we sat out on her balcony drinking wine and smoking weed, looking up at the unpolluted starry sky. She's found used needles out in her yard before, and it makes her worried about whether her three children will follow her down that road into addiction. We reflected with Jen about old acquaintances that are now dead because of heroin. There are too many to keep track of.
Heroin, in Jen's world, is like bait being dangled in front of a fish on a hook—if some people fall into that trap of addiction and violence and crime, who can blame them? "You're gonna bite that fucking worm," Jen said. "You're gonna get hungry. You're gonna bite it. It's there. It's in your face. It's all around. Eventually you're gonna try the shit if it's right in front of your face."
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