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Down and Out in Vermont

Heroin in the hills

Nov 4, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 08 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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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.”

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