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In Parts Of Vermont, Heroin Is 'The Easiest Drug To Get'


You might have followed the recent news about the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. It was hard to miss. He's a big celebrity, and his death - reportedly from a heroin overdose - brought the reality of heroin addiction back into the spotlight. And it might also have challenged the image some might have of who an addict is, or where he or she might live.

Think Vermont, for example. You might picture snowy mountains, beautiful woods, apple-cheeked skiers. But Gov. Peter Shumlin is thinking of something else. Last month, he dedicated his entire State of the State address to what he called the rising tide of drug addiction and drug-related crimes. Here's a clip.


GOV. PETER SHUMLIN: In every corner of our state, heroin and opiate drug addiction threatens us. It threatens the safety that has always blessed our little state. It's a crisis bubbling just beneath the surface that may be invisible to many, but it's already highly visible to law enforcement, medical personnel, and far too many Vermont families.

MARTIN: As we said, this might have been a shock to some people, but it wasn't to writer Gina Tron. She grew up in Vermont and has been reporting on the state's dramatic increase in heroin abuse for Vice and Politico. And she is with us now. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

GINA TRON: Thank you. Happy to be here.

MARTIN: You grew up in Vermont. One of the things about your piece in Politico is that you talked about all the people that you personally knew, that you had gone to high school with, for example, who had been affected by this. Were you aware that drugs in general were a problem when you were growing up?

TRON: I was very aware of drugs when I was growing up, but I only started noticing heroin a couple years after I graduated high school. And in 2002, 2003, I started hearing about classmates of mine who passed away from heroin overdoses. I remember being, like, a preteen and just kind of looking around at my classmates and thinking, oh, that person's really good at such and such, or that person has talents in that - and imagining that when they got older, they would be successful at that. And it's a real shame to hear about them dying - or just some of them got so into drug addiction that it ruined their life for a while.

And, for example, my friend Andrea (ph), she and I went to school together. We were in the fifth grade. You know, I always thought of her as a very popular girl. You know, she liked skiing, and she's a very Vermont girl. And she's been to rehab five times for heroin, and she's doing very well now. But I never would have thought of her as a heroin addict, especially back in high school. And that's when she started shooting up. I imagined a heroin addict as, you know, some super-skinny guy laying on the ground in a back alley of New York City.

MARTIN: The headline of your piece was "How Did Idyllic Vermont Become America's Heroin Capital?" So you mentioned some things like weather - you know, long, boring winters and, you know, it's just - anyone who lives in a cold climate can relate to that. But are there other things that you think are contributing factors? Like, for example, is there like, a history of people not wanting to talk about things like this, or trying to keep appearances up because tourism is such a part of the place? What do you think are some of the other factors that emerged?

TRON: Some of the experts told me that Vermont has always been an opiate state. Even back in the 1800s, farmers' wives would use opiates to kind of cope with long, boring winters. So Vermont always seemed to love its downers. But I think another huge factor is the highway system in Vermont. A lot of highways come in from major cities. It's very accessible. So the highways basically work as pipelines for heroin dealers, or for traffickers that live in Vermont that want to just drive down - takes like, a couple hours - pick up some heroin, drive it back up.

MARTIN: One of the very factors that makes it an attractive tourism state is one of the factors that makes it desirable for people to bring drugs in, I guess - right? I think some people who are not familiar with this whole subject are puzzled by what seems to be a resurgence of heroin. I mean, I think for a lot of people, this is like something from the '60s or '70s and now, all of a sudden, we're hearing about heroin again. Why would that be?

TRON: The OxyContin being changing in 2010 did bring on a lot more heroin users because there were so many people across the country addicted to OxyContin. It was called hillbilly heroin. And I think that increased heroin demand.

MARTIN: Oxycontin is a prescription drug. And what happened was the formula was changed - that it wasn't as easy to crush up or - what was it about the change in the formula of OxyContin that made some people transition to heroin?

TRON: It was harder to crush up, and it was also a lot more expensive. And for some reason, it became a lot less available. You know, a bottle of oxy would cost around $80, when you could get high off of heroin for, I think, like $10, depending on your tolerance. But it's like, 800 percent difference; like, you'd go broke to maintain that habit, although heroin seemed to be a lot cheaper habit that almost anybody could do it. In some places in Vermont, heroin is, you know, the easiest drug to get right now.

MARTIN: Sometimes when there is a problem like this, people believe it's outsiders coming in, bringing the problem to them. And I'm wondering, do people there - are they owning the problem as their problem? Or is it seen as outsiders bringing, like, their big-city ways to Vermont?

TRON: I think it's a mix of both. I think for a long time, a lot of Vermonters were in denial, which definitely contributed to the problem. Most people in Vermont kind of wanted to put their head in the sand and not see what was happening to their state because they didn't want to believe it was happening. There are people from out of state coming in and preying on Vermonters because there is a demand for heroin - so they know they can make money. But on the other side, there's also a lot of Vermonters that are contributing to the problem because they are addicted, and they are going down to, like, Holyoke, Massachusetts or Springfield; buying drugs, bringing it back and selling it.

So right now, it's a very complicated, systemic problem at this point. But I think that Vermont, especially with Shumlin's speech, is taking responsibility for admitting their flaws. You know, Vermont cannot deny any longer that there is a huge problem, and it's resulting in a lot of crime, a lot of poverty. And it's depressing for a lot of people. And, you know, a lot of Vermonters that I've spoken to are ready to figure out how to solve the problem, and how to improve and fix it.

MARTIN: You know, part of your Politico piece - and I do have to say - and, you know, I appreciate your honesty here - is you talked about your own experience with addiction. And that's not the major part of the piece; heroin was not your drug of choice. And I was just wondering how your own experience informed your understanding of the problem?

TRON: Yeah, I was addicted to cocaine, and I went to rehab for that twice. You know, it's not the same as being addicted to heroin - it's an upper instead of a downer. But I think it gives me insight into what it's like to be an addict. Nobody wants to become an addict. Nobody wants to get their life ruined. You know, I admitted myself into rehab. There was no intervention. Nobody told me I had to go; it was nothing like that. And if I didn't tell anybody I had a problem, a lot of people would never have known.

But once I admitted I had a problem, some people attached the stigma of addict to me. And I think that's hard for some people that struggled with addiction to move on, if they're always being labeled an addict forever. And that also can apply to states like Vermont - they're stepping up and admitting that there's a problem there instead of having a stigma attached to it. If you're trying to fix a problem as a person or a state, it should be something admirable instead of something to be looked down upon.

So I think that we are still very behind, when it comes to mental health and drug addiction, as a society - and understanding why somebody gets attracted to drugs and becomes an addict. I think it's a lot more complicated than just being weak or selfish.

MARTIN: One of the figures that the governor highlighted in his address was that the number of people treated for heroin addiction has increased 770 percent since the year 2000. And he says that the state needs a fresh approach to the problem. Can you tell us what - some of the things that they're thinking about?

TRON: Shumlin is proposing more rehabs. Right now, there's a lot of people in Vermont that are on the waiting list to get into a rehab center, to get help. And the longer somebody waits, the more of a chance that they will get back into heroin, you know. So that's a great proposal. He's also proposing to look at heroin as more of a health issue rather than a crime. I think that taking that approach will be a lot more efficient because I think attacking the core - and the core is why are people addicted, why are people turning to this drug - there's more of a chance to kill it where it begins rather than its far-reaching roots.

MARTIN: Gina Tron is a freelance writer. She was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York, where she is based now. Gina, thanks so much for speaking with us.

TRON: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.