A Prescribed Addiction, Part 3 - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

A Prescribed Addiction, Part 3

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BURLINGTON, Vt. -

"I sold off a lot of my stuff," said John, a recovering heroin user. "Stuff that was important to me."

Stuff that this young Vermonter-- in moments of desperation-- was willing to give up for heroin and prescription pills. In the end, the cost was much higher. His opiate addiction almost killed him. John, who asked that we not use his real name, is one of the roughly 3,500 Vermonters from teens to pain patients to seniors who find themselves in treatment for opiate addiction every year.

Reporter Jennifer Reading: Where would you be if you hadn't quit?

John: Either jail or dead. There's no doubt in my mind.

"This isn't a matter of a problem," Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel said. "This is an epidemic."

Local police in every corner of the state say the collateral damage of opiate addiction is staggering. And many departments don't have the resources to deal with it.

"People are stealing from family members, they're selling family heirlooms and jewelry, they're breaking into homes, they're selling guns, they're doing everything in order to get money for pain medication," Merkel said.

The latest annual numbers show there were about 70 robberies, 3,000 burglaries and 10,000 thefts in Vermont. Police say almost all of these crimes were fueled by drugs.

"Many people that commit these types of crimes would not in a million years imagine themselves walking into a pharmacy or store or bank with a weapon demanding cash," Vt. State Police Capt. Glenn Hall said.

Law enforcement says this is not an epidemic the state can solve by simply locking people up. Instead they say they need to cut off the supply of drugs coming into the state. The plan is to ramp up efforts to nail drug traffickers and dealers of both pills and heroin. Police want direct access to the Prescription Monitoring System, arguing the same online tool that helps doctors track patients' pain meds will also help police bust people diverting pills. At the same time, federal prosecutors want doctors to be more scrupulous about the conditions for which they prescribe these powerful drugs, but say going after the medical community criminally is not the answer.

"I'll tell you what, those are really hard cases to prove beyond a reasonable doubt," said Tristram Coffin, the U.S. Attorney for Vermont.

Doctors say many pain patients have legitimate complaints and their ailments warrant prescription painkillers like OxyContin, Vicodin or Percocet. But if those patients get hooked, that's when doctors say the decision to keep supplying the meds gets dicey.

"Some patients have a terribly chronic painful condition and some misuse of their medication tied together," said Dr. Stephen Leffler, the chief medical officer at Fletcher Allen Health Care. "Sometimes it's very hard, as a provider, to know which is which and what are you treating."

Clinicians and police agree the best way to contain this epidemic is to reduce the amount of legitimate and illicit drugs out there while getting more people into treatment.

"When individuals are in treatment, even if the treatment is not perfect, their criminal behavior drops by well over 90, 95 percent," said Bob Bick of the HowardCenter.

The problem, according to substance abuse specialists like Bick, is that people who need help can't get it. Vermont built its first methadone clinic in Burlington in 2002. Since then four others have gone up in St. Johnsbury, Newport, Berlin and Brattleboro, but clinicians are having a tough time meeting the demand. Although 640 patients receive daily methadone, 358 others are stuck on waiting lists.

"It's not helpful to say well, we can help you, but it's going to be six months to a year before we can provide that service," Bick said. "When someone is sitting on a waiting list that means they're still actively using and abusing... They're doing all of the negative, anti-social things that they're had to do in the past in order to support that habit."

The decision to quit is terrifying to most addicts. And the withdrawal is torture.

"I know you can't die from it but you absolutely wish that you could," John said.

After several unsuccessful stints in rehab, John decided if he didn't want to die he would have to give treatment a serious shot.

"I didn't want to be at the methadone clinic every morning," he said.

For John, a medical cocktail of buprenorphine and naloxone was the better option. It's called Suboxone. The medication is prescribed by 200 doctors statewide.

"Suboxone helps with the cravings. It's a blocker," he said. "So painkillers, Oxycontin, heroin-- it's all a waste of money."

Now John and 2,800 other Vermonters depend on the drug to keep them clean. That's because opiate use causes a permanent change in the brain. Eighty-five percent of addicts will need to stay on Suboxone or methadone for the rest of their lives.

"I feel good about what I've accomplished," John said.

He says his six year battle to stay sober has been worth every painful minute.

"I'm going to school. I have a great job," he said. "I have friends that don't use that are real friends. They're not fake and I'm thankful for that."

Vermont health officials now want to build five specialized opiate treatment centers. The plan is called the "hub and spoke" initiative. At the hub, patients access methadone or suboxone, but it's also where they're linked up with secondary support services or spokes. The plan is to put treatment centers in Chittenden and Rutland counties first, followed by three more in the Northeast Kingdom, Central Vermont and the state's southeast corner. The price tag for the project is about $12 million. After federal money, Vermont would only have to pay about $48,000.

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