The Magazine

Down and Out in Vermont

Heroin in the hills

Nov 4, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 08 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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Rutland, Vt.
On his way into town, Dana Gray wondered about the number of cars and pickups parked at a local health care clinic. It was Saturday morning, and normally the clinic would be closed.

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A little further down the road, he drove by the St. Johnsbury farmers’ market where the local organic gardeners and farmers set up Saturday mornings 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.

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