"This is the single biggest threat to the state of Vermont," Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel said.
Merkel is talking about heroin. Two days ago his department took down one of the larger suppliers in Addison County. Police say the Brooklyn, N.Y., man was operating out of a Leicester home, peddling thousands of dollars of heroin in just days.
"The guy gets here on the 15th of December and by the 17th he's got half the heroin sold. He sold 550 to 600 bags of heroin. It's amazing," Merkel said.
But the chief says the sobering reality is that another drug trafficker is waiting in the wings to pick up where Brian Cumberbatch left off.
"There's a hell of a demand. A hell of a demand," Merkel said.
It's a trend seen across the state. The Vermont Drug Task Force says the number of heroin trafficking investigations has nearly tripled since 2009. The state's first major heroin wave ended in the 1990s when addiction shifted to prescription painkillers. But police say heroin is now making a comeback after drug companies reformulated OxyContin to make it harder to abuse.
"It was a resurgence and now it's far exceeding what we've ever seen before," said Lt. Matthew Birmingham of the Vt. Drug Task Force.
And the quantities of heroin coming in are unprecedented.
"We used to investigate circles where they would bring 100 to 200 bags at a time," Birmingham said. "Now, we are seeing consistently people who are bringing thousands of bags at a time into the state and multiple grams of raw product."
Authorities say low-level dealers who used to make day trips to source cities, buying enough heroin to feed their habits while making a few bucks, have been replaced by organized out-of-state drug rings with gang connections.
"The majority of them are organized criminal groups and the members of these groups are very violent," Birmingham said. "We have the potential of having Vermont citizens wrapped up in that and anyone who gets in the middle of that could get hurt."
And police say the traffickers are cashing in. They buy a bag, or one dose of heroin, in large cities for $2, and then sell it to Vermont addicts for ten times as much, wreaking havoc on addicted families.
"Where did that money come from? Who's not getting fed tonight? Who's not paying their rent? Who's not paying their heating bill?" Merkel asked.
"The solution is not easy," Birmingham said.
Authorities say curbing the epidemic is going to take the coordinated effort of police, treatment professionals and lawmakers.
"I would expect that we'll have a discreet group of people looking at it, as well as committees of jurisdiction. I think it will be an area of focus this year," said Rep. Shap Smith, D-Vt. House Speaker.
Authorities are calling for a three-pronged solution: they say the traffickers must face tougher sentences, public awareness around the dangers of heroin must increase and demand for the drug must decrease, by improving access to treatment programs. There are currently about 400 people stuck on waiting lists at the state's methadone clinics.
Wednesday, March 12 2014 11:09 AM EDT2014-03-12 15:09:08 GMT
Vermont State Police say they caught a woman with more than $40,000 worth of items that she allegedly stole. Donna Ditchkus, 51, now faces charges in a number of burglaries across southern Vermont. SheMore >>
Vermont State Police say they caught a woman with more than $40,000 worth of items that she allegedly stole.More >>