In 2014, $25.4 billion was set aside to continue fighting the war on drugs in the U.S., with over $14.7 billion going to domestic and international law enforcement, as well as efforts to intercept trafficking. The big problem is that these efforts are nothing new, and the problem hasn’t gone away. In an investigative series, Fusion.net heads into Rutland, Vermont, to meet people fighting on the “front lines” of the war on drugs, living through what Gov. Peter Shumlin called a “full-blown heroin crisis” to gain insight into the problem sweeping many communities in America.
Heroin Problem in Vermont
The governor’s declaration of a “heroin crisis” comes alongside rising signs of an issue, with fatal overdoses having increased by 50 percent since 2006 and a concurrent 800 percent increase in demand for opiate addiction treatment. The problem is closely tied to a lack of opportunities, particularly in areas such as Rutland. In short, without anything to occupy the day and with all of the stresses that come with limited money, more and more people are turning to heroin. In many cases, prescription painkillers were the addicts’ first experience with opiates, but the high price of the drugs drives users to much cheaper street deals of heroin. It’s a problem being repeated across the country, with fatal heroin overdoses more than doubling from 2010 to 2012 nationwide, increasing from 1,779 to 3,635.
The Bemis Family’s Story
For the Bemis family in Vermont, addiction is a daily fact of life. Elderly parents Art and Linda have seen five of their six children struggle with addiction to everything from heroin to pain pills and alcohol. In the investigative series, Fusion primarily focuses on Justin, Art and Linda’s son, who has children of his own, as well as a heroin addiction. The situation is extreme, with Justin spending up to $500 a day on heroin, but also striving to overcome his problem. He gives his parents his money so that he can’t spend it on drugs, but then in the throes of withdrawal, his parents receive threatening and disturbing phone calls demanding the money back.
During the investigation, Justin is spotted buying heroin when the reporters are on a ride-along with cops, and after being confronted about it—and listening to the messages he left on his parents’ answering machine—he becomes more dedicated to beating his addiction. The only problem is that there’s a long waiting list for treatment, and as a result he has no support when he’s going through withdrawal. He says he doesn’t recognize himself anymore, but he wants to get better for his children. Like many others, he had his first experience with opiates due to prescribed medication.
Law Enforcement’s New Approach to Tackling Heroin
The police on the front line of fighting addiction have started to look at the problem differently. While arresting criminals is still part of their daily life, the police force is increasingly viewing addiction as not solely a law enforcement issue and is acknowledging the need for treatment for many of the people whom officers encounter. The force is correctly viewing addiction as a disease, and as with any other disease, sending people to jail can’t fill the role of treatment. James Tarbell, a police officer in Rutland, says that, “What we’re finding is, this is a situation where you can’t arrest yourself out of it. What we’ve learned is that you need to get rid of the need for the opiate to be here.”
Waiting List for Heroin Treatment in Rutland
With the users fighting their own addictions and the cops fighting the crimes that come with drug use — while recognizing the crucial role of treatment in correcting the problem — you’d be forgiven for thinking the solution is within reach. Sadly, the problem is a more practical one than anything. Dr. Mark Logan, a treatment provider in Rutland, can treat only 100 heroin addicts at a time (by federal law), and his waiting list is enormous. He says that users can be waiting three to six months to receive treatment, but points out that, ideally, when someone is ready to try to beat her addiction, you want to get her into treatment within a day or two. The desire to get better can be a fleeting one. In September 2014, there were 503 people on the Vermont Department of Health’s waiting list for treatment, but the number needing support is much higher.
Justin Bemis was one of the many people on the waiting list for heroin treatment, and although he eventually got through rehab and was able to return to his children healthier and happier, not everyone’s story ends so positively. With the same story repeating across the country, it’s becoming increasingly obvious to everybody involved that the only way to win the war on drugs is to change its focus. We need to declare war on addiction and the situations that lead to addiction.
The federal government needs not only to continue increasing the budget for providing addiction treatment, but also to work to maximize opportunities for citizens. In Rutland, the lack of job opportunities and the resulting void in people’s lives is driving the heroin crisis; if we don’t want the same thing to happen elsewhere, it’s essential to help people find ways to become productive members of society. It isn’t going to be easy, but helping those in tough socioeconomic situations and providing treatment—not jail time—for those who do turn to drugs is the only way the war can ever be won.