(Host) Addiction to heroin in Vermont has long been an issue – but now abuse of pharmaceutical drugs has eclipsed the heroin problem.
The shift has been driven by the fact prescription opiates are easier than heroin to obtain, and at cheaper prices – and it’s presenting challenges to treatment experts and law enforcement officials.
VPR’s Steve Zind reports:
(Zind) Lieutenant Paul Favreau says for every fatality from a heroin overdose in Vermont – there are 8 or 10 deaths from prescription drug overdoses. Favreau is with the Vermont State Police Drug Enforcement Task Force.
He says most of the pharmaceutical drugs being sold illegally are coming from out state.
One recent bust involved a person who was bringing as many as 2,000 doses of the drug Oxycontin into Vermont from New York City every week.
But Favreau says the problem is also homegrown.
(Favreau) "We’re also seeing a substantial amount coming from doctor shopping, forged prescriptions and people selling their own prescriptions."
(Zind) Favreau says law enforcement officials have developed new approaches to combat the rise in the illegal sale of prescription drugs. This year the state established an online database of prescriptions filled by pharmacies – to prevent people from going to multiple doctors to obtain drugs.
Barbara Cimaglio heads the state’s Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse. She says the shift from heroin to pharmaceuticals has led to an increase in the number of young people who are becoming addicted to painkillers.
(Cimaglio) "Younger users feel that these substances are somehow safer, that because they’re medications they cannot cause the same problems as street heroin, which is not true."
(Zind) Cimaglio says unlike heroin, addiction to pharmaceuticals often begins when a person uses the drugs for legitimate reasons – for example, to manage pain after surgery.
She says the state has made progress in expanding treatment services to make them accessible to more Vermonters; citing services in Chittenden County, a mobile treatment clinic in the Northeast Kingdom and clinics in Berlin and Brattleboro.
The Howard Center in Burlington currently treats more than 200 people addicted to heroin and pharmaceutical drugs.
Bob Bick, who directs mental health and substance abuse services at the center, says there’s a long waiting list of people who want treatment.
(Bick) "You can imagine that if somebody calls us and asks about getting into treatment and you tell them there’s a hundred people stacked up in front of you, that would be pretty demoralizing. Federal regulations require that we prioritize pregnant women. Unfortunately, we have had women who have come into the program who have admitted that in order to get into the program they have purposely gotten pregnant in order to bump themselves."
(Zind) Additionally, there are concerns one drug that’s being used to treat addiction is being diverted for illegal use. Bick says the treatment drug known as buprenorphine, which can be prescribed by physicians, is now itself being abused and sold illegally.
For VPR news I’m Steve Zind.