The New Face of Heroin

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As Birmingham pulls into Rutland, he points out the vacant storefronts on Main Street and the plywood boards nailed over the windows of dilapidated Victorians – signs of the "lack of hope and opportunity" Shumlin alluded to improving in his speech. Once a thriving industrial stronghold known for its marble quarries, Rutland, like towns throughout the nation, has struggled to find an identity as its backbone industry dries up. And with a population of 16,000, the city is just big enough to ensure a dealer customers, but small enough that law enforcement remains spotty. "Kind of a perfect storm," says Birmingham.

He stops into the State Police Barracks on the edge of town. Inside, he is met by Lt. John Merrigan, a burly 45-year-old. Merrigan has offered to give a tour of the 10-block section of Rutland that "has been hit the worst," and just before setting off he doubles back to retrieve his gun. "You never know," he says. Though the violent turf wars that often accompany the drug trade have not become an issue in Vermont, where members of the Crips and Bloods do business alongside one another, there is concern that Vermont's lax gun laws have resulted in drugs being bartered for firearms. Passing a Stewart's market on the corner of State and Grove, Merrigan recalls that, in 2010, a convicted New York state dealer was shot dead in the parking lot after pulling a .380 on one of Merrigan's state troopers.

"This is where you start to see it," Merrigan says, crossing Grove into a neighborhood that at first looks indistinguishable from countless others in the state. "In the snow it looks almost nice, doesn't it?" he says. "But come back in the summer, and you'll see dirt where there should be grass, trash in lawns. And keep in mind most of these old houses have been diced up into apartments. Shitholes, really." On a run-down street with the incongruous name of Park Avenue, the car comes to a crawl in front of three adjacent homes that, last summer, emerged as a hub of heroin sales. "The openness of it, just walking around with drugs, making deals in front of the neighbors – you used to not have anything like that in Vermont," Merrigan says, describing a world familiar to viewers of The Wire. Last September, an early-morning raid on all three properties resulted in the arrests of five major dealers. "That was a good hit," says Merrigan, "but someone will take their place." He glances out the window. "Probably someone already has."

If there is hope to be gleaned, it is that the approach Vermont is taking stands as a counterpoint to trends that have proved futile in combating drugs for generations. Unlike Maine's Tea Party governor, Paul LaPage, who used his State of the State to advocate fighting the heroin crisis by increasing law enforcement so they can "hunt down dealers and get them off the street," Shumlin's core initiatives – expanding treatment programs and funneling addicts into them instead of prison – are already being embraced as models for the rest of the country. In Chittenden County, which includes Burlington, T.J. Donovan, the State's attorney, has implemented a program that screens those arrested, allowing nonviolent offenders to avoid the matrix of the judicial system in favor of treatment. Last November, when a clinic opened in Rutland, Shumlin was on hand to cut the ribbon; and in March, the governor announced a plan to put naloxone, a fast-acting drug that reverses overdoses, into the vests of every trooper in the state. Shumlin's idea that "we can't arrest our way out of this" has been adopted by law enforcement, who are adamant that their efforts are now focused on going after what Birmingham calls the "tier one and tier two" dealers responsible for dispersing large quantities of drugs. The difficulty is that the line separating a desperate addict from a predatory dealer is rarely clear.

Case in point: becoming a critical cog within a gang's shadowy distribution network was the furthest thing from the mind of Melissa Weston, when four years ago she snorted a line of OxyContin that had been cut for her to sample. She was 18, a spry, cherub-cheeked blonde who filled her Instagram feed with photos of sunsets above hashtags like "#ilovermont." Just out of high school, she was working part-time at Victoria's Secret in Burlington while going to cosmetology school; her mother, who died of leukemia when Melissa was 10, wanted to be a hairdresser, and Melissa dreamed of opening a salon. Unlike many her age, Melissa was well acquainted with the dangers of oxys; after her mother passed away, her father developed a habit that made him a family pariah. "I thought he was a dirtbag," she says. "I never thought I'd be doing drugs." But Melissa, who had spent the previous three years in foster care, was tired of feeling out of place. She did the line, sinking into the couch as its effects took hold. Soon after, she related her experience to a friend. "You know my boyfriend deals heroin, right?" her friend responded. "If you liked oxys, you should try H."

Dealers in New York are always on the lookout for users like Melissa, who snorted her first line of heroin that same week and began shooting it a month later. Fresh-faced Vermonters like her are less likely to attract attention from law enforcement, and are recruited to work as mules in exchange for free or discounted product. Within a couple of months, Melissa was making regular trips to Harlem in her Subaru. "We would bring in, like, 70 or 80 sleeves a week," she says, a "sleeve" being a term for 100 bags, making each of Melissa's regular shipments major trafficking offenses on par with a 9,000-bag seizure the Vermont Drug Task Force made last fall, one of the largest in state history. Aside from the large quantities of drugs, she was often in proximity to serious money – she posted a photo on Instagram of $20,000 fanned out between her French-manicured nails and stuffed into her shirt – though most of it went back to the New York dealer in exchange for a small cut and a supply of heroin.

During some of her last few months of using, Melissa lived out of a trailer in a Burlington suburb, shoplifting from downtown boutiques and selling the clothes to secondhand stores. One day a dealer asked her out on what she thought was a date. Figuring she could flirt her way to a free high, Melissa agreed and the dealer took her back to the motel where he was staying. "There was already this woman in there, short blond hair, real skinny, just looked like garbage," Melissa recalls. "She was a prostitute and he was her pimp." Melissa was now shooting 20 bags a day and, when told the rates – $75 for half an hour, $150 for an hour – the prospect of money was enough to justify prostitution. The pimp had her pose for a series of provocative photos, promoting her on the website Backpage as a "college girl." Her first customer was a man in his thirties, the exchange limited to oral sex. She slept with the next john, who turned out to be her last. "He was, like, 350 pounds," she says. "It was the most degrading thing I've ever done."

This is not the life one associates with the professional drug dealer, yet Melissa was still driving into New York when the opportunity arose, and during her three years using she helped move tens of thousands of bags of heroin into the state. Had she been caught, she would be labeled a player, not a pawn – her arrest and lengthy prison term applauded as an example of the tougher penalties Shumlin is imposing on anyone who "transports illegal drugs into Vermont." Fortunately, a year ago she ended up getting busted in a drugstore parking lot, charged with possession of a small vial of liquid Valium. When her case came to court, she was offered the chance to have the charges dropped in exchange for getting treatment, and now stands as a testament to that initiative's benefits. "I didn't even want to go to rehab," she says. "My grandfather drove me, and I was shooting up all my stuff in the back of his car. But something changed when I was there." Now 21 years old, sober for eight months, Melissa works as a waitress at an Italian restaurant in Burlington and has begun to think about opening a salon once more.

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