Statistics don’t tell the story

‘I came away from doing this project with deep admiration for those who work on the front lines, and deep empathy for those who have suffered the losses of this epidemic. I also came away with a deeper sense of how opioid addiction ravages a community, making people feel unsafe and angry and creating a general sense of disorder and grief.’

BRATTLEBORO — I started covering the opioid crisis with my wife Shanta in the winter of 2019. We were working together then as investigative reporters for The Commons, focused on reporting a package of stories on homelessness and housing insecurity.

During an interview, Kate O'Connor, then chair of the Selectboard, mentioned a drug house a few doors over on her street. She had seen a lot of trouble with it. So did her mother and father, who lived next door.

Then a drive-by shooting took place there.

Shanta and I plunged into the story for the next 10 days, putting out a Special Focus package on Feb. 20, 2019 with the headline “Urban drug culture brings a host of 'isolated incidents.'”

(Some people criticized the use of the word “urban” as coded language for “Black,” but of course we meant it in the “not rural” context. In retrospect, I might also challenge the term “isolated incidents,” which is what the Brattleboro Police Department used in its press releases during that time.)

We stayed with the story until June, covering different angles, including an interview with young residents who had been affected by the drug trade.

One was a young woman who had been pistol whipped and hospitalized with fractures to her skull and face. She was still healing but able to talk.

We had a pretty strong sense of the story behind the wounds she was recovering from, but her “boyfriend,” who was wanted then on a federal warrant, was with her that day. We had to wonder if the story she gave us might not have been the true or full story.

We learned a lot in that time, including stories we knew in our bones to be true but could not publish because we didn't have all the evidence we needed.

Then things changed: We took on other stories, and then COVID-19 hit, so it was a while before I came back to the story in June.

What I found was how much has changed in two years - and also how much had not changed and gotten worse.

* * *

The infrastructure to address the problem of substance use disorder is stronger now, even though the Coronavirus has been a significant disruptor and the Brattleboro Police Department is gravely depleted right now in terms of staffing.

There is a clear sense within the professional community that deals with public health and criminal justice that harm reduction is a foundation, and that it is also important to work hard to stem the criminal flow of drugs into the state and try to mitigate the kind of crime that troubles so many residents in this county.

The degree of coordination within the town's public service agencies and local nonprofit organizations seems strong.

At the same time, the situation is worse than it was two years ago. The same drug houses are still open at the same addresses, and the motels where subsidized housing has been provided during the pandemic became places where drugs are sold and crimes take place.

The places where people gather and shoot up, under the bridge or behind abandoned big-box structures in the strip malls along Putney Road, are as active as they ever have been.

The death toll and level of addiction present a true public health crisis. The level of crime in the area presents an equally strong crisis of policing and criminal justice.

* * *

The statistics are chilling on their own, with increases in drug overdoses nationwide and a steep spike in Vermont.

But statistics don't tell the story.

In past years, many young people have died who were well-known and loved within the community. I know most of their names, but this is a matter of privacy, and I respect that.

Except in obituary columns, these deaths don't make the news pages unless they involve a crime, but they wash through the community in waves of sorrow and grief that are visible in Facebook posts and comments and in conversations among friends.

The human cost is one real thing about the opioid epidemic. While reporting this story for three months, I listened to a lot of sad stories.

Any death is hard, and grief is natural. When someone dies before their time, when you lose a child or mourn a friend who was your own age, it is more than that.

So many people I talked to expressed the sense of what is lost when a young person dies. It is like something has been ripped apart and won't be the same again.

I came away from doing this project with deep admiration for those who work on the front lines, and deep empathy for those who have suffered the losses of this epidemic.

I also came away with a deeper sense of how opioid addiction ravages a community, making people feel unsafe and angry and creating a general sense of disorder and grief.

* * *

When I started working on this story three months ago, it began with the sheer human cost of the opioid epidemic - the basic reality that our children are dying.


After months of asking questions, one answer - the most infuriating - is that so many people started with drugs that were legally prescribed, got addicted, and then moved to the black-market trade when their prescription ran out or they could not afford pharmaceuticals anymore.

There have been billion-dollar settlements, but no one who peddled legal drugs is going to jail.

For other sources, the path to substance use was more just part of the social surround. For them, using opioids had been socially normalized within a cohort of friends.

A lot of the people who have been dying of overdoses came of age right around the 2008 economic collapse, and they all grew up during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Being young right now and looking clearly at what climate change has in store is a terrifying prospect.

We have not left a very good world to our children. That might be part of it.

Beneth Goldschmidt-Sauer, who taught so many of the young people who have died in the past years, talked about how it seemed to her that some of the most sensitive and capable students she had worked with were the ones who became addicted and succumbed to drug overdose.

I thought of the phrase “canaries in the coal mine.”

When I look at the question “Why?,” it is hard for me not to feel that there is some radical sickness inside the heart of the United States, and that the opioid crisis is just one symptom - like the QAnon conspiracy theories, or the resistance to doing the right thing when it comes to stemming the pandemic or finally addressing climate change.

* * *

The question of what can be done is really tough.

This is a nationwide problem. Right now, it is hard not to feel that Brattleboro and Windham County are doing as much as they can, given the resources we have.

With more resources, we could do more, and we should. Still, it is not clear that there are enough financial resources in the world to really change things, though one place to start would be in policing and public safety.

Right now, the Brattleboro Police Department is so short-staffed that it can't cover a third shift, which means that from midnight to 6 a.m., anyone who wants to commit a crime can basically roam free-range.

After an interview with Brattleboro's new chief of police, Norma Hardy, and after talking to some folks who live drug-free in places where drugs and prostitution are rampant, I came to see that rampant small crimes and the lack of policing capacity are as great a problem.

The idea that one should clean out one's car of anything and leave it unlocked - instead of locking it and risk have your windows broken - seems insane to me, but that's the best strategy if you live in one of the areas where break-ins happen regularly, as I do.

Chief Hardy made one point that stayed with me: the people committing crimes, whether prostitution or small crimes like vehicle break-ins or shoplifting, are being trafficked. What one source called “the dangerous magic” of drugs causes people to do things that they would never do if they were not enchained to the power of the substances that they take.

I know every place you can buy drugs in Brattleboro - I could make a twisted tourist map of this area. Chief Hardy said that shutting down these drug houses would be “a battle.” I wonder if there is enough resolve in the community to fight that battle.

I understand the instinct to defund the police or change its focus - I have close friends in Minneapolis and New York City who are fighting for that.

Our issues here are different, and I can't help thinking that the people most in favor of defunding the police tend to be those least in need of a strong policing and public safety presence.

* * *

Kurt White of the Brattleboro Retreat talked about how epidemics are cyclical and often generational, and that while we must do our best to treat the current situation in a humane and effective way, the main thing now is to prevent the next drug epidemic.

Through all of the research and reporting, I would come back to the idea that addiction is a health disorder, not a moral failing or criminal behavior, and that criminalizing drug use is what creates the profit incentive that leads to crime and overdoses.

The secrecy, stigma, and shame that goes with drug addiction seems like a deep, underlying corrosive element, connected in part to the criminal dimension, that may undermine any hope of improvement if not challenged and changed.

Replacing the profit motive with the kind of approach that Portugal uses would make sense to me. Even if it is not entirely possible, doing so might be less harmful.

It might end practices like dealers from out of state moving in on local dwellings to develop distribution networks.

It might end the way that human beings are trafficked because of their need for drugs, whether in the form of girls or young women forced to have sex with strangers to feed their addiction or young men sent on the streets on the front lines of moving the product.

Decriminalization might also result in fewer deaths - if doses were well-regulated and assured of being unadulterated and predictable, the way that pharmaceutical-grade drugs are.

Of course, this approach would require that the state take over regulation and administration of drugs that have been proven to be harmful, and it is not clear that this would be the best approach.

Kurt White noted that it is not an approach that could gain support across the nation, divided as we are right now, and I know he is right about that.

The regulation of drugs is a federal matter, not a state one, and it is hard to see how Brattleboro and Windham County can do more than do its best to manage its part of a nationwide problem.

* * *

Journalists are not expected to have the answers to the problems that they cover, so I won't pretend that I have any even after three months of work on the story.

But I do have some thoughts as I close the narrative down.

One is that we must end the secrecy, stigma, and shame that accompany substance use disorder. We must accept that some people need to use opioids to manage themselves in the same way that other people need to use alcohol and tobacco.

There is nothing good to say about substance dependence and the harm it might do to the body and the mind, but no good comes from making it a crime.

A second thought is that the people who commit most crimes in Brattleboro are victims of the epidemic, but that does not mean we should not treat what is happening in our area as just a public health crisis.

It's time to start knocking on the doors of the drug houses. It's time to hold landlords accountable. It is time to fight a battle with the forces that create the ongoing flow of drugs into our community.

My last thought is that we should do everything we possibly can, as a community and society, to keep young people from dying. We just should.

I don't know the answer, but I do know the question: “How do we keep our children from dying?”

* * *

As I end this work, some sort of closure seems necessary. I think of phrases stuck in my heart from people who were kind enough to talk to me about the pain they had experienced.

One person wrote “my daughter's ashes are in a urn on my desk, waiting for burial.” (1)Entering the sorrow of that sentence is a deep dive into the meaning of this epidemic crisis.

Another person said that when she came to gather what was left of her daughter's property, she found almost nothing(2).

“I think she had cleaned everything out,” she said. “In her journal all the pages were ripped out. It was as if she left no trail. Everything was clean.”

Those words stuck with me for three months, trying to ponder how someone could reach a point where they want to erase themself, how so much sorrow is carried in that feeling.

And I think of these words from Beneth, who taught so many of the young people who are no longer here.

“I don't think that any of them wanted to die,” she said.

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