The New Face of Heroin

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Eve tried to get sober for the first time in August 2012, when she was 20 and the anxiety of using became so overwhelming she considered ending her life by injecting a lethal amount. She decided to enter rehab, at which point she came up against the lack of sufficient services Shumlin has since made it policy to improve. "Every clinic I called had a waiting list," she remembers, describing an experience recognizable to addicts across the country. "One person I talked to, he even told me to just keep using until I found a bed." Eventually a vacancy opened up at the Brattleboro Retreat, a rehab center near Vermont's southern border with Massachusetts, where Eve spent a week detoxing on Suboxone, a synthetic opioid similar to methadone used to wean addicts off heroin. "But then, when I left, I was detoxing from the Suboxone, which is almost worse than heroin," she says. "Goose bumps, diarrhea, throwing up – you can't spin around the toilet fast enough." She relapsed the day she got out, her habit escalating from three bags a day to three "buns," or "bundles," the term for 10 bags, which in Vermont sell for around $200 each, twice the rate in major cities. She resumed stealing from her mother, who pursued charges against her for check fraud. Out of work, Eve supported herself by giving her dealer rides to his supplier in Massachusetts in exchange for gas money and free product. "Slumlords, crack shacks, Puerto Rican gangs," she says. "Suddenly I'm in this very harsh world."

Detroit's debt crisis: everything must go

One day in the late summer of 2012, Eve was in the supplier's house, a lair dark at all hours thanks to the ratty blanket hung over the window. She had just shot up, and was sitting on the beat-up maroon couch, when the dealer who lived there answered his cellphone, shouting at the person on the other end. From what Eve could determine, he was speaking with a customer who, already in debt, was asking for another advance to keep from getting sick. "Finally, he said, 'Come by, you'll get what you want,' so obviously this guy runs over," Eve recalls. "He lets him into the house, and – boom – the minute the door shuts he pulls out a gun and shoots him in the head." While the floor was scrubbed with bleach, the corpse was wrapped in a tarp, then a carpet, then driven off in a waiting car. "The Vermont guys I was dealing with before, they kind of cared," Eve says. "If you owed money it wasn't a big deal. If you burned them, you were done as a customer, but they weren't going to shoot you."

The last significant surge in heroin use, in both Vermont and the nation, began in the late Nineties. Matthew Birmingham, the commander of the Vermont Drug Task Force, was working as a road trooper at the time. "An enormous bust for us would be 100 bags," he says, sitting behind his desk at the unit's headquarters in Waterbury, 27 miles east of Burlington. "Today, 5,000 is common. One week last year, we had a 3,000-bag seizure, then another 1,000, then 4,000." For Birmingham, a tall and fit man with a straight-laced demeanor, that was the moment when the magnitude of what was happening became almost overwhelming. "I'm sitting there with my bosses and we're all like, 'This is never-ending.'"

Vermont, from a dealer's point of view, is uniquely fertile terrain. The rash of painkiller abuse during the 2000s was especially pronounced in rural areas, where the combination of poorer, Medicaid­reliant populations and lack of proximity to medical facilities resulted in overworked doctors turning to opiates as a cure-all. Vermont now had a high density of potential heroin users, and the state happens to be a short drive from New York City, long the country's epicenter of distribution, as well as satellite cities like Springfield and Lowell, in Massachusetts; Hartford, Connecticut; and the Albany region in New York. Factor in a national prison system where small-town criminals forge relationships with members of big-city gangs, which continue when they're released, and the sophisticated network of distribution Birmingham lays out seems almost predestined. Dealers from these cities now drive into Vermont on a daily basis, setting up shop in either roadside motels or a trusted customer's residence – "trap houses," as they're known, a term made popular by the rapper Gucci Mane – unloading product so fast they've vanished just as police are getting wind of what's going on. "Fourteen years ago, heroin was only in urban areas," Birmingham says. "That's all out the window now. Suppliers are getting smarter, establishing themselves out where there's no police."

The following evening, Birmingham drives to Rutland, a city in southwestern Vermont, where John Deere, the tractor inventor, was born in 1804, but today has become a nexus of the state's heroin problem. As the sun sets, throwing contrails of magenta across the sky and silhouetting the jagged ridgeline of the Adirondacks to the west, Birmingham talks about how, for all the natural splendor, growing up in Vermont can be difficult for some. "Especially when you're young," he says, "there can be a feeling of being removed from the world." Combined with a socioeconomic landscape that increasingly provides opportunity only to those already born with it, the underlying complexity of the matter begins to take shape. "Kids today don't feel part of anything," says Jessi Farnsworth, who works at HowardCenter, an organization that runs treatment clinics in Vermont. "People need to feel appreciated, that their contribution is important. When people feel isolated, it's easy to want an escape from reality."

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