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Heroin: still a statewide crisis

A complicated supply chain meets a widespread demand

BELLOWS FALLS—John Merrigan, commander of the Vermont State Police Narcotics Task Force, noted that while there may be a nationwide crackdown on websites like Silk Road, the state drug task force focus remains on heroin, noting that opiate addiction continues as widespread “in every community” in the state.

“No community is untouched,” he said. “We all know someone who doesn’t know they have an opiate addiction.”

That, in turn, creates the demand that suppliers use as a door into any community.

Merrigan said that heroin-related drug arrests still outnumber cocaine arrests 2 to 1. Noting that his 25-year law-enforcement career has had a drug focus, he emphasized that the heroin supply is still reaching Vermont in significant amounts.

He described the suppliers as “illegal businessmen” who are cooperating to distribute the product where there is demand: the rural towns and villages in New England, including Vermont.

Merrigan described this cooperation as more than law enforcement has ever seen before, among groups that formerly fell into the classic model of bitter gang rivalry.

He said that there are both gang and organized-crime components in distribution of heroin, and that, instead of fighting over territory, they are operating on a business model based on support and cooperation.

On the East Coast, the drugs are sourced out of New York City, where both gangs and mafia work to distribute it throughout the region.

Asked where most of the heroin is coming from, he said, “Colombia. Remember when the drug cartels there were known for trafficking cocaine? [They] stopped trafficking cocaine and moved to heroin instead.

“It couldn’t have worked out better for them as there was a ready-made demand” building in the United States with opiate addiction on the rise from over-prescription of pain medication. All this coincided with the economic downturn.

Altogether, heroin became a cheaper choice for the consumer than prescription narcotics on the street.

The DEA notes that heroin also comes out of Southeast Asia (Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar) and Southwest Asia (Afghanistan and Pakistan), as well as Mexico and Colombia.

The East Coast sees mostly Colombia-sourced “white heroin,” while “black tar” heroin from Mexico is found more on the West Coast.

Merrigan said the route of Colombian heroin to the East Coast has also changed because of proactive cross-border cooperation with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and with increased traffic stops and checkpoints throughout the state.

As a result, the distributors are starting to deliver the heroin via boat and plane — “out and around” — as a more successful delivery route, he said.

Merrigan said he is involved with the governors’ conferences on opiate addiction. His task force is also collaborating with law enforcement in New York, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania, in creating respective state responses modeled after Vermont’s innovative and more compassionate approach.

Most parties now agree that education/prevention, law enforcement, and treatment groups must all work together if this problem is going to have a chance of getting fixed in the long term. Success is “going to be these three things together,” Merrigan said.

“It’s got a be a balance, we can’t arrest our way out of this, but we can’t treat our way out of it, either,” Merrigan said. “That was something that was an idea for a while, but it’s not effective at all.”

Now, with how “everybody’s budget is crushed, we’re holding our own. We have treatment facilities here in Vermont that are okay. But they are just okay, and we have some facilities here, but they are few and far between,” Merrigan said.

Addicts cannot always get to a particular treatment center, or fail to qualify for one that is close to them, he noted.

“If you go to Massachusetts, they have some amazing places there that your average guy can get into,” he said. “I hope that Vermont gets to that place.”

Overcoming addiction, he said, is possible with someone who is “in recovery and committed to quitting heroin.” But, he acknowledges, people in recovery who are not committed “can be, and are, the most devious, sneaky, lying, thieving people you will ever meet,” and all the while, still buying, selling, and using opiates, Merrigan said.

Merrigan said that those who are committed to recovery, and have a strong family and community support around them, can and do successfully get control over their addiction, and stop using.

And some Vermont communities are stepping up to do that.

“It seems like people are starting to look at it a little different now,” he said. “It isn’t just a nasty, dirty habit you don’t want anything to do with. The awful stigma is never going to go away, but it’s starting to loosen up — both for the community, and for addicts for whom its easier to feel like they can be out in the public with what they do or have done, and for the community to accept them.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #286 (Wednesday, December 24, 2014). This story appeared on page A4.

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