MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Behind the facade of pristine ski slopes, craft beer, quaint village greens and one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, Vermont is grappling with painkiller and heroin abuse, a challenge leaders say is fueling crime and wrecking lives and families disproportionately in this tiny state.
Nearly every day, police across Vermont are responding to burglaries or armed robberies investigators believe are prompted by the unslakable hunger for money to feed heroin or pill habits. In many cases, law enforcement officials say, what began as the abuse of prescription drugs has turned into heroin use because it's less expensive and, more recently, easier to get.
Federal statistics rank Vermont among the top 10 states for the abuse of painkillers and illicit drug use other than marijuana — including heroin — for people ages 18 to 25.
Last week, Gov. Peter Shumlin took the unusual step of highlighting the challenge by devoting almost his entire State of the State address to it. He described the drug abuse as "a crisis bubbling just beneath the surface" and called on the Legislature to pass laws encouraging treatment and seek ideas on the best way to prevent people from becoming addicted in the first place. He also called for stiffer penalties for traffickers and people who use weapons in drug crimes.
"Anyone who doesn't believe that they have an opiate challenge in their state is in denial," Shumlin said in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, the day after his speech. "The point is that if we can shift from our belief, our fantasy, that we can solve all of these problems with law enforcement, we'll go a long way toward solving the problem. This is primarily a public health crisis."
The numbers are startling for a state the size of Vermont, which with 625,000 residents has a population about the same as Nashville, Tenn.: