Small-Time City in Vermont Has Big-Time Heroin Problem

Small-Time City in Vermont Has Big-Time Heroin Problem

Widespread use of heroin and drugs in cities across the nation is indeed a sad story, but most would admit that it is not a surprising one. One might conjure up visions of hardscrabble life on tenement-lined streets in an overpopulated city as a likely context for a drug ridden existence. But would the city of Rutland in central Vermont with a population of under 17,000 come to mind?

For most Americans, probably not. Yet, the sad demise of the city of Rutland clearly demonstrates that the recurrent use of heroin and other drugs festers in cities across America, regardless of size or region. The city has been battling a heroin addiction epidemic for years and is just now coming to grips with trying to solve the problem and reclaim its neighborhoods.

Rutland came into prominence in the mid 1800s as the railroad center of Vermont and for its marble quarrying. The city started to address its drug problem about a year ago. The director of psychiatric services at the Rutland Regional Medical Center, Jeffrey D. McKee, states that, “There’s probably not a person in Rutland County whose life has not been affected by opiate addiction in one way or another.”

Governor Peter Shumlin devoted almost his entire State of the State address to heroin abuse in the state of Vermont. The governor implored citizens to “stop quietly averting our eyes from the growing heroin addiction in our front yards.” What Shumlin calls a “full blown heroin crisis” is permeating throughout New England as well as Vermont. As a result of acknowledging the problem, Rutland police have joined with social services and reduced or eliminated jail time for offenders if they seek help and surrender themselves to drug rehab facilities.

September 2012 was an epiphany for Rutland when a man inhaled gas from an aerosol spray can, passed out while driving his vehicle, and smashed into a strand of parked cars at 80 mph, killing Carly Ferro, 17, a high school student. Ferro’s death became a catalyst to Rutland admitting to its drug problems. Ferro was an avid golfer and basket ball player in HS and a beloved member of the community. One classmate said, “She didn’t have a mean bone in her body. She was the kindest and sweetest and most caring young lady and loved people for who they were no matter what.”

“I was shocked at the depth of addiction here,” said James W. Baker, a former director of the Vermont State Police, who was brought in as police chief in 2012 to overhaul the department. “We had open drug markets going on in the street.”

Part of the problem for Rutland is the high conversion rate of single-family homes into multiunit rentals. Police say that the units are conducive to drug trafficking and prostitution. The drug peddlers go into cities like New York City and Springfield, Massachusetts and come back selling drugs for huge profits, marking up a $6 bag and selling it in Rutland for $30. Police say that about $2 million of heroin is sold per week in Vermont.

Many of the women hanging out at the multiunit dwellings make themselves available to the dealers. Chief Baker said they receive rent subsidies and food stamps and use heroin themselves. “If you’re a guy from New York, you can come here with 500 bags of heroin, sell it, and sleep with three different women before you go home the next day.” He added, “The entire infrastructure is here for these guys to function, make quick money, and leave.”

A big effort by “Project Vision” to revitalize Rutland by razing dilapidated houses and planting gardens, along with outreach efforts to eliminate drug use, is underway. The outreach includes some members of the community buying back the multiunit apartments with a goal of reducing their number by 50% and returning the city to more single-family dwellings.

Mr. Kraus, the Project Vision chairman, is optimistic about Rutland’s future and admits that reclaiming the city is a “work in process.” “Nobody’s proud that we find ourselves in this circumstance,” he said. “But we confront our problems and deal with them.” 

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