RUTLAND, Vt. — Hidden from view among Vermont's world-famous ski resorts and picturesque villages is one of the deadliest slopes.
“My patients tell me you can find heroin on every street corner in Burlington, for example,” said Dr. Deborah Richter, a family physician in Montpelier and one of the state’s leading addiction specialists. “It’s in every town.”
Heroin is spreading through rural America, striking small towns like Rutland, with a population of 16,495. Vermont now ranks second in the country in the number of people per capita seeking treatment for opiate addiction.
Tucked near downtown Rutland’s quaint streets is Serenity House, a halfway home for addicts trying to get clean. Matt Fredette and Ashley Blanchard are now going through recovery there.
Fredette’s addiction cost him a successful career as a computer technician for the Department of Homeland Security, but he’s now been clean for more than a year.
“The people here don't even make enough money to get by, but they'll get rid of their food cards, they'll do whatever means, you know, they'll go without food, they'll steal from friends and family just to get one more,” he said.
Blanchard, who’s been clean for six months, picked up his thought: “And as soon as that one's over, you're thinking about how you're going to get more, and what tomorrow's going to bring. No matter what, 24/7/365 a year plotting in your head on how to get the next high. It's an everyday struggle, an every-second struggle.”
After some trouble with the law and about a dozen overdoses that put her in the hospital, 21-year-old Blanchard hit rock bottom.
“I was homeless with a gun to my head,” she said. “It destroys you. You're happy. You're sad. You're miserable. You're excited. And physically, everything on your body hurts.”
Concern over the state’s devastating heroin epidemic led Gov. Peter Shumlin to devote his entire State of the State Message in January to the drug abuse problem.
Between 2012 and 2013, Vermont’s deaths from opiate overdoses doubled, Shumlin said, and the number of Vermonters seeking treatment for opiates has skyrocketed 771 percent since 2000.
Vermont is not alone, as heroin use has catapulted across the country. In 2012, there were 669,000 users, up from 373,000 in 2007, according to a federal estimate.
Earlier this week, Attorney General Eric Holder sounded an alarm about the rise in heroin and prescription painkiller addictions.
“When confronting the problem of substance abuse, it makes sense to focus attention on the most dangerous types of drugs,” Holder said in an online video (note: link opens as a download). “And right now, few substances are more lethal than prescription opiates and heroin.”
Recovery is a long, lonely and uncertain struggle for people like Fredette and Blanchard, said Liz Antonoff, who runs the support center they attend, along with 1,100 to 1,300 other addicts each month.
She knows that struggle on a deep, personal level. She's been clean for 18 years.
“It’s a Catch-22,” she said. “You have an illness that tells you you don't have it, and you can't think your way out of it.”
‘It started out with pills’
Opiate addiction isn’t new in these parts, and most specialists trace the heroin invasion to the rise of painkiller abuse 15 years ago.
“I moved here in 1999, and in early 2000 [and] 2001, I started seeing a bunch of 20-year-olds come in with habits of OxyContin,” said Richter, the family doctor. “To me, that was the starting point of how things got started. It started out with pills.”
Richter believes pharmaceutical companies could have done more to prevent the epidemic of opiate and heroin addiction, by simply coating the pills so abusers couldn’t crush up and snort or inject them so easily — a way to shortcut the pill’s normally slow release.
“And so if they had put the coating around it, it might stopped this from the beginning,” she said. “But they chose not to for economic reasons, I guess.”
But then doctors became more careful about how they doled out prescriptions, and the maker of Oxycontin redesigned the drug to be nearly crush-resistant. Supply went down, and the cost of powerful painkillers soared to around $80 a pill.
But customers were hooked, and many turned to heroin as a cheaper — and deadlier — alternative. Heroin dealers saw remote towns like Rutland as an instant opportunity to make huge profits. A $6 bag of heroin in New York City can sell for as much as $35 in rural communities.
“We're near New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and people can take a couple-hour trip to these places, score some cheap heroin and sell it for a lot more here,” Richter said.