Vermont’s Heroin Epidemic

“Vermont seems, in the abstract, all wrong for this sort of thing. Isn’t heroin the drug of the urban underclass, project housing, and street gangs?…In Vermont, when you talk of ‘doing drugs,’ you mean smoking marijuana, which is so well tolerated that it might as well be legal.  And now heroin?  It’s everywhere, Right down to the towns of fewer than 10,000 souls.”  Geoffrey Norman

Down and Out in Vermont

Heroin in the hills

Geoffrey Norman, “Down and Out in Vermont,” The Weekly Standard, November 4, 2013, p. 24

A little further down the road, he drove by the St. Johnsbury farmers’ market where the local organic gardeners and farmers set up Saturday morningsWELL.v19-08.Nov4_.Norman.TWSPhotoIllustration_Shutterstock and do a nice weekend trade in vegetables, eggs, and cheese. There were a few vehicles parked nearby. Fewer, though, than there had been back up the road, at the clinic.

At the office of the Caledonian-Record, St. Johnsbury’s daily, where he is executive editor, Gray asked someone, “Hey, what’s going on at the clinic this morning?”

“It’s Saturday, remember?” a colleague said. “Free needle exchange day.”

“Oh, yeah. I forgot.”

As sociology, it is pretty crude, but you could certainly take that story as a parable of sorts. One that captures the town’s future as a race between the organic farmers and the junkies. A race that the junkies may be winning.

Heroin began its current ascent in Vermont sometime around 2005, according to the people in the state who are trying to get their hands around the problem, which they now routinely describe as an “epidemic” or “plague.”

The chief of police of Burlington, the state’s only true city, recently estimated that some 15 to 20 organized dealer operations are working his part of the state. Most have ties to gangs in cities that include Detroit, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. They move enough of the drug to bring in almost a million and a half dollars every week. Not a lot by big-city standards but, then, the population of the entire state is barely more than 600,000 people.

And the problem, as Chief Michael Schirling said recently, is not confined to Burlington. It is, he said, “in every town, every hamlet, and every back road in Vermont.”

So it is now routine to pick up the paper or turn on the news and learn of another “sweep” by the state police, with arrests in the dozens. A January raid in Bennington, in the southwestern corner of the state, rounded up some 60 people. In June, another in Springfield accounted for 33. Then, in September, St. Albans was the target. In October, Manchester. Scores of dealers were arrested. Most were addicts themselves, selling to support their own habits. A few were the big fish. “The guys with the guns,” as one undercover officer put it. “Scary dudes, sent here by the gangs and with something to prove.”

Vermont seems, in the abstract, all wrong for this sort of thing. Isn’t heroin the drug of the urban underclass, project housing, and street gangs? Vermont is among the whitest states in the union, and not so many years ago it had more cows than people, more miles of dirt roads than paved. It is, in the general imagination, the home of Ben & Jerry’s and a place where people don’t cook cough syrup for meth, they boil maple sap for syrup. In Vermont, when you talk of “doing drugs,” you mean smoking marijuana, which is so well tolerated that it might as well be legal.

And now heroin? It’s everywhere. Right down to the towns of fewer than 10,000 souls, like St. Johnsbury, tucked up in the far corner of the state called the Northeast Kingdom, where the needle exchange is busier than the farmers’ market. Where dealers, many of them on some form of probation or parole from a previous conviction, do business in the center of town, outside the Depot Square, once a gracious old hotel and now a warren of apartments that rent cheaply enough that what the state’s housing subsidy doesn’t cover, the money off the sale of a few bags of smack will.

It was not always like this, of course. St. Johnsbury was once a proud, vital, and busy little city of the kind that grew up in the Connecticut River Valley during the Industrial Revolution. It was the home of Fairbanks Industries, makers of industrial scales that, by the time of the Civil War, were, according to one history, “the best known American product in the world.”

But over the years, the company left for other parts of the country and the world, leaving behind a famous planetarium and a prestigious school, the St. Johnsbury Academy, where boarding students, many from Asia, pay $40,000 a year to attend. It’s still a beautiful town, but hollowed out by the loss of work and purpose. The town’s vitality, along with its population, declined. A sadly familiar story of unemployment, welfare, illegitimacy, and drugs.

But old Victorian homes remained on the leafy residential streets beyond and above the downtown core. Most are owned by teachers at the school, professionals, business owners, and those who have the means and who keep them painted and landscaped. Others, however, have been gutted and converted to multiple apartments where parolees from the prison outside of town live and both use and deal drugs. You can spot them easily by the indifferent landscaping and poor repair and the number of satellite dishes sprouting from the roof. Half a dozen or more dishes, one for each unit in the old house.

The tenants come here after they have served their sentences, figuring that this place looks as good as any. They have heard stories on the inside about where to live and score drugs after you are released, and many don’t have any place better to go.

The drugs they deal and use come up the interstate, like the 540 bags that were seized by police in June in a depressingly routine arrest of a typical defendant whose lawyer asked that his client be spared jail for “humanitarian and legal reasons” (among them that incarceration would cost the woman her Social Security disability benefits and her rent-subsidized Depot Square apartment).

To the surprise of many, she remained in jail. Typically, drug arrests lead to a quick appearance before a judge and the formal filing of charges before the person who has been arrested is set free, pending trial. “Catch and release,” frustrated citizens call it. And the frustration is not only in St. Johnsbury but all over the state, as the heroin epidemic spreads and the authorities, state and local, struggle to get their hands around what the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has certified as the country’s highest rate of illicit drug use.

This is exceedingly difficult to square with any of the usual Vermont stereotypes. It does not fit, certainly, with the tough, self-reliant Vermont of Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys or with native son Calvin Coolidge, who called Vermonters “a race of pioneers who almost impoverished themselves for a love of others.” Nor does it conform to Vermont’s modern vision of itself as a progressive outpost of tolerance and initiative, where the values of the community and the environment precede those of the individual.

There is no political constituency for heroin. If the political right sees it as a problem of law and order and the left views it as a public health matter and takes a more therapeutic approach—well, Vermont is trying both. Trying nobly and very hard, and yet .  .  . if you live here, you read the stories in the papers and talk to your neighbors about the 19 burglaries in town and the 20 arrests in the next little town down the road, and you wonder if either approach—or, indeed, both—has a chance. You recall the haunting passage from Claude Brown’s memoir, Manchild in the Promised Land, on how heroin came to Harlem:

Heroin had just about taken over. .  .  . It seemed to be a kind of plague. Every time I went uptown, somebody else was hooked, somebody else was strung out. People talked about them as if they were dead. You’d ask about an old friend, and they’d say, “Oh, well, he’s strung out.” It wasn’t just a comment or an answer to a question. It was a eulogy for someone. He was just dead, through.

“No question about it. We’ve got a real problem,” says Jim Baker, chief of police in Rutland, the second-largest city in Vermont and the one that would most likely win any designation as “the worst” when it comes to heroin. “That might be true,” Baker says. “But I’m not interested in the rankings.”

While he may be in charge of a small force in a rural state, Baker is not Andy Griffith keeping order in Mayberry. He is a modern cop and a professional, a member of the board of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “I’ve been a cop since I was 19,” he says, talking with a writer—me—in his office.

Baker made it to the top and ran the Vermont State Police before retiring in 2009 and becoming a consultant. He ran one small Vermont town’s department on an interim basis before the mayor of Rutland approached him to take over a troubled and increasingly overwhelmed department.

He is cordial, even friendly, with the kind of size you see on men who were linemen, way back, when they played football.

“The problem here is mind-boggling,” he says. “It’s getting worse, and we can’t arrest our way out of it.”

But that does not mean, he goes on, that up-to-date, high-intensity police tactics can’t do something to help the city get its hands around the problem. Shortly after taking the Rutland job, he arranged a meeting with Anthony Braga, a criminologist at Harvard. Baker and the mayor went down to Cambridge to learn about “hot spot policing,” which you might think of as having evolved from the James Q. Wilson “broken windows” insight.

“It’s Wilson on steroids,” Baker says.

In the case of Rutland, the hot spot consists of a few square blocks less than half a mile from Baker’s office. It is where he wants his officers to be.

“We don’t need them in places where there isn’t any crime. We want the people who are selling the drugs and committing the crimes to know we’re there and that we know who they are and what they are up to and that we are going to bust them first chance we get.”

Baker, who plainly prefers action to talk, says, “You ought to go out with one of my officers and see for yourself.”

So a couple of days later, I arrive at the station as Sgt. Matthew Prouty and another Rutland cop are bringing in two women they have just arrested for selling heroin. One of the women is a staff nurse at a local old age home. Prouty and the other officer are tagging evidence, including several disposable hypodermics.

“I usually see these after they’ve been used and thrown away,” Prouty says. “I have to keep an eye out for them in the morning, when I’m running. They’re everywhere.”

Prouty was born and raised in Rutland and has been on the police force for 15 years. The only serious time he has spent anywhere else was a short hitch in the Army, where he was an MP. If you met him out of uniform, you would be unlikely to think “cop.” More likely “coach.” He’s serious, yes; intense, even, but without the big city, street-cop sheen of brutality and cynicism.

“Better buckle up,” he says when we are in his cruiser.

Prouty talks on the way to his town’s hot spot. In this case, the “his” is literal. “That’s my house, right there,” he says as we pass a handsome two-story Victorian where he lives with his wife, his four children, an adult brother, and his parents. The house is probably a hundred years old, Prouty says, built when this was still a thriving little town with an economy based largely on marble quarried from the mountains around the town. Many of the stone cutters came from Italy, where the quarries were nearing exhaustion. Rutland was a community of large, Catholic families and big houses.

The spreading trees and the old houses on the street where Prouty lives might give the neighborhood a solid, permanent feel if there were not so many windows boarded up with plywood and lawns littered with trash and if you did not see the occasional hand-painted sign telling druggies to stay away. When Prouty parks the cruiser across from a house that looks derelict, a woman comes out of the door. She is fat, tattooed, and wearing a dirty T-shirt. She yells something about always coming around and harassing people.

“We get that all the time,” Prouty says. “Means it’s working. We want them to see us. That one is a dealer. We know it, and she knows we know it.”

As we drive around the neighborhood, Prouty points out the drug houses, which would be easy enough to spot without his help.

“There was a drive-by the other night, right here,” he says.

“Anybody hurt?”

“No. Not that time.”

But then, he says, at the convenience store on the corner over there, a state trooper shot and killed a dealer from New York who was wanted in that state and by U.S. Marshals as well.

Drive-bys. Dealers dropped in the act of going for a gun. Lawn signs warning the druggies to stay away. It doesn’t seem right—not on these leafy streets in this little city with its splendid views of the mountains a mile or two distant.

“Tell me about it,” Prouty says.

On our way back to the station, we talk about what drugs have done to the town where he is raising his family. The town is hurting, he says. The quarries and the stone-cutting businesses are long since dead and gone. There are empty storefronts on every street in town. “Mainly, the businesses we see opening up are pawn shops. Four of them in the last year.”

There have been some violent crimes—the killing of that dealer, and a hostage situation in a drug house where Prouty himself took on an armed suspect and finally got him to surrender. But the “lesser” crimes are the real sickness, a kind of malaise that makes everyone’s life harder. “Property crimes,” Prouty says, “are what we deal with all the time and they almost always come back to drugs. People stealing for the money to buy drugs. That’s why we have the pawn shops. People breaking in houses and stealing jewelry.

“They steal anything they can sell. Copper. The catalytic converters out of cars. Electronics, of course. They’ll walk into Walmart and pick up a flat-screen television and just walk out with it.”

He and the rest of Baker’s officers do what they can. They make their presence known. They make arrests. But the numbers are not on their side. The state can lock up only so many and keep them only so long.

A suspect like the nurse he arrested earlier will go in front of a judge, be given a trial date, and released. “And what happens,” Prouty asks, “between the arrest and the trial? She’s still an addict and still needs her drugs.”

On the way out of Rutland’s little hot spot, on the way back to the station, Prouty points to three adjacent buildings. One is a public defender’s office. The next is a drug house. The last is a rehab center.

“Pretty much says it all, doesn’t it?” he says.

A few days later, the police were called about an overdose in the neighborhood. It was in the house directly across the street from Prouty’s.

If Vermont cannot, as Chief Baker says, “arrest its way out of this problem,” then what else can it do? -Treatment and prevention are the obvious answers. So the state is energetically treating addicts and getting the word out, though it hardly seems necessary at this point to inform people that using heroin can lead to what are called, in the contemporary argot, “bad outcomes.” There is, you sometimes think, nothing left to be learned about the downside of drugs. Even the youngest users “know.” And in Vermont, that can be very young. Eighth graders, according to one teacher, are into heroin at her school. And perhaps a few younger than that.

While it is hard to believe that Vermont’s heroin epidemic might have been prevented by more and better public service ads, increased “awareness” and better “messaging” cannot hurt.

As for treatment, the lessons of many years are not encouraging. It is expensive, and there are more relapses than cures. But Vermont is energetically working with the usual tools. The announcement of a November 2013 date for the opening of a local methadone clinic is a front page story in the Rutland Herald. The clinic, according to one official, would “initially serve about 50 patients who are presently making daily trips to New Hampshire to receive methadone.”

Well, the reader thinks, 50 sounds manageable. But then the official goes on to say that he “expects the number to grow gradually during the course of the clinic’s first year of operations. By the end of 2014, he said the facility, which will be open seven days a week, 365 days a year, is expected to serve 400 people.”

Cheryl McKenzie, who is also on the treatment side of Vermont’s fight against heroin, works with smaller numbers and has higher aspirations. She deals with addicts 10 at a time, all of them women and all of them in her program as an alternative to where they have just come from, which is jail.

McKenzie is as much a pro as Chief Jim Baker. She has been studying addiction and dealing with addicts “for 30 years. In eight different states.” She does not harbor illusions, but she has not given in to the temptations of cynicism and weariness. She is excited about something called “Mandala House” and what she calls “Graduated Transitional Living.”

The house is a little white clapboard structure not far from the state fairgrounds in Rutland. It is home to 10 women and, sometimes, as many as 2 infants or children. If they are not busted out of the program for failing to abide by its rules, the residents will stay at Mandala House for anywhere from 6 to 18 months. This, while they finish school, learn a trade, find work, learn how to live a life of routine, and, most of all, stay off drugs.

The rules are spelled out, clearly, in a notebook. The residents, some of them mothers, are reminded that:

* Clothes, towels, shoes, etc. are to be hung up, or put away.


* Inappropriate music degrading women, talks of drugs or violence will not be allowed.

and that they could be terminated for

* MIA or lying about where you have been.

This means going back to jail. And there is no honor system when it comes to drug use. The residents are subjected to frequent and random urinalysis—a “UA” in their parlance.

But Mandala House is not jail. It is clean, well lighted, and well staffed. At a regular staff meeting, which I am allowed to observe, McKenzie sits with eight other women to discuss the progress each resident is, or is not, making toward the day when she can leave with a good chance that she will not go back to doing drugs and more jail time.

“I’d consider a 60 percent success rate is a realistic target,” McKenzie says. “That’s what we are aiming for.”

To the outsider, that seems both high and low. One hears, anecdotally, about the low odds for long-term success with drug programs. Which accounts for methadone clinics. They deliver “maintenance,” not a cure. McKenzie is attempting to rebuild the women who pass through Mandala House. She calls them “ladies” and she has high expectations. She wants—no, demands—that they finish school, learn skills, get jobs, even start businesses.

“That can be an easier road for some of these ladies,” McKenzie explains, “since most employers are reluctant to hire someone with a felony record. And a lot of our ladies have long sheets.”

All very admirable, I think, as I sit at the table and listen as the staff discusses routine administrative stuff. How did this “lady” do on her GED? Did that one make it to her job interview? What about that argument two residents had over the washing machines? And so on.

But what about, you know, the cost of the thing? Ten addicts and two of their kids, housed and fed and under the care and supervision of almost as many staff people.

“The Department of Corrections tells us that it costs about $75,000 a year to incarcerate a woman in Vermont,” McKenzie says. “Mandala House comes in at less than one-fourth of that.”

One of the women at the table—sensing my skepticism, perhaps—says firmly, “You know what the real problem is?”

I expect that the answer is going to be people like me, who don’t understand what they, McKenzie and the members of her staff, are up against here. People who have no compassion. Who think only in terms of what it costs. Who don’t care about the kind of suffering that the residents of this house have experienced.

“Uh .  .  . no,” I say.

“We are enabling these people.”

“Really? How?”

“We make it too easy for them.”

Heads nod, all around the table.

“There are so many programs. So much assistance. This is a good place to be an addict and a single mom.”

The woman is not exactly angry and this is not the usual political rant against welfare mothers and paternalistic government. I’m the one who is supposed to be giving that familiar speech. This woman works for the paternalistic government, after all, and her clients are welfare mothers. Her words are spoken out of a deep frustration. And it is shared, around the table, as women nod and detail the various programs by their acronyms—WIC, EBT, etc.

“If you are a single mom in Vermont and you have a cell phone,” one woman says, “then you just need to dial 211 and you will be talking to a real person who will tell you what the programs are and how you can get on them. You can be an addict and a mom and be taken care of.”

This discussion went on for a while, and I suppose I was, if not shocked, then at the least, very surprised. So much so, that I merely listened, nodded, and took a few notes. What the woman told me was confirmed, a few days later, when I was talking with a prosecutor in Bennington about the big sweep there that had netted 60 dealer-users.

“I did some research,” he said. “And it turned out that almost 50 of those people were on some kind of public assistance.”

Later, of course, I came around to the obvious. Of course the staff at McKenzie’s ambitious Mandala House program are frustrated even as they continue to soldier on. They are dealing with grown women who have to be told, like children, “Clothes, towels, shoes, etc. are to be hung up, or put away.” And some of these women have children themselves. Who would not be frustrated at having to administer random urinalysis to these women to make sure they have not gone back to the needle, which got them into jail before they were given a chance to come here, and which will get them sent back if the UA comes up dirty?

The frustration of the ordinary citizen is nothing against theirs. A friend who owns a plant a few miles from where we are sitting has had trouble finding drug-free employees, and one of the addicts who slipped through the cracks stole several thousand feet of copper wire, which he sold at a local scrap yard.

Jim Baker’s police had no trouble making the bust. The addict lost his job, making it that much harder for him to support his habit.

But the cycle, if it is that, is most poignantly and immediately apprehended, and the frustration most urgently felt, by people like Cheryl McKenzie who deal with addicts who are the children of addicts and who have children themselves.

One of them was newly in residence on the day I visited Mandala House, and McKenzie wanted me to talk to her.

She is 32, the woman tells me. Just out of jail. She has been an addict since she was 13. She grew up here, in Rutland, and her mother was an addict and a dealer. She has had four children herself. All by different fathers. One was born while she was in jail.

Her story, which she tells in tight, rich detail, is sad and familiar. Boring to listen to, fascinating for her to tell. Addicts, as we’ve all come to learn, find the stories of their own degradation compelling and tragic. What, after all, is addiction but a kind of sublime narcissism, chemically induced?

The woman goes on, about this arrest, that jail term, this baby, that deal.

“Have you,” I interrupt, “ever tried rehab before this?”

“Yes,” she says, “11 times.”


But before I can complete the question, she interrupts.

“No, 13.”

And this time?

“You get older and you want a change. I really want to change my life. I’ve been working for Habitat for Humanity, the last few days. Pounding nails.”

And ultimately?

“I want to be a hair stylist. Or do psychiatric work.”

For now, she is a resident at Mandala House, where the published rules remind her to hang up her clothes. Her children are dispersed. One with a father. Two are with grandparents. One has been adopted.

The staff at Mandala House will do their best with her, and it is impossible not to wish them well or admire their dedication and tough-mindedness. If you live in the state, you feel a certain undeniable pride in the way that they, like Jim Baker and Matt Prouty, are taking on the problem. There is a measure of the old Vermont spirit of yeomanry about it, which is something that many who have adopted the state and its values (again, like me) find ineluctably seductive. The city of Rutland, after all, was built on an industry that amounted to blasting and transporting and cutting hard rock for sale to people who lived lives of considerably more comfort in other places. Many of the graves at Gettysburg are marked by headstones made of Vermont marble, and many of the men whose bodies lie in the ground beneath them were from Vermont, which had among the highest per capita losses of any Union state in that war.

This heroin invasion, though, is a different kind of fight. The enemy is an alternative sensibility, one that is exactly contrary to that older spirit. Heroin is the agent of total surrender. The drug of demoralization.

The vitality of Vermont—and places that are like Vermont—has been leached away over the years. This is no fresh insight, merely a lamentable fact. The quarries shut down, like the factories along the Connecticut River Valley, and like the little farms where everything that came out of the ground was watered with sweat, and people took their pride in “making do.” One of the first of these Vermonters I got to know would tell me of how, when he was a kid, he and his brother were responsible for laying in the firewood necessary to warm the drafty old farmhouse that was home to a family of 10. They cut and split 60 cords of firewood every summer. With hand tools.

There was less and less for the generations that followed. And the familiar pathologies took root and spread: unemployment, dependency, illegitimacy, drugs. One generation, then two, and now three or four. The woman I met at Cheryl McKenzie’s Mandala House had been raised (more or less) by a single mother. She has four illegitimate children of her own, none of whom was mothered or nurtured in any real sense. This is the pathology of the inner city, the advent of the much prophesied “white underclass.” People have seen it coming for years, yet none of the big-think solutions seems to have worked or even gotten off the ground. So we have mothers who are addicted when they give birth to children who will never know their fathers. Among live births at the Rutland hospital, about one in seven is to an addicted mother. This led to the creation of another program. This one known as Babies and Mothers Beginning In-Sync. Or, BAMBI.

The trend is not unique to Vermont, as the example of places where methamphetamine abuse is rampant makes plain. Vermont, so far, has mostly been spared that vector of the plague. But not the idleness, dependency, and demoralization.

Still, the police are willing to stand up to the gangs, and the women at Mandala House are not afraid to tell an addicted mother to hang up her clothes.

So there is hope.

Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.


One thought on “Vermont’s Heroin Epidemic

  1. Anonymous For Good Reason says:

    Written to the Caledonian-Record’s Editor – I doubt they’ll print it because I would prefer to write the letter anonymously:

    Dear Editor,
    I am not including my name for reasons of my own safety, but my message is still pertinent to the growth and quality of our town and I am adamant about how things have GOT TO CHANGE with one very particular issue:
    This is a message to the residents of the Depot Square Apartments, here in downtown St. Johnsbury, which is an otherwise nice place:
    Residents of Depot Square Apartments:
    Clean up your act! You bring shame to our community, our downtown area, and our center of commerce. You deter people from coming to visit and live here! You contribute to giving Saint Johnsbury as a whole a bad name!
    Stop the drugs, the thefts, the brawls, the bedbugs, the excessive drinking of alcohol among your tenants day and night, the loitering purposelessly on our sidewalks, the inappropriate attire of many of your tenants, the harassment of others, the heckling of random citizens on the street.
    Be thankful for your low-income housing and show this gratitude by behaving like an upstanding citizen or just ship on out of town. Some of us in Saint J are sick of it!

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