Vt. mom weathers storm of opiate addiction - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Vt. mom weathers storm of opiate addiction

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BURLINGTON, Vt. -

"I started using it when I was young and it definitely ruined my life," Jane said.

She's talking about heroin. "Jane" asked we not reveal her real identity because of the stigma still attached to opiate addiction.

"I was in and out of jail. I was stealing to support my habit and that's all I cared about was my habit," she said.

Jane is a 31-year-old mother of two. Substance-abuse specialists say she's the classic case. She started using heroin at 16 and still struggles with opiate addiction as an adult. And she's certainly not alone.

There were 54 opiate-related deaths in Vermont in 2012; 85 percent of those fatalities were linked to prescription painkillers, the other 15 percent to heroin. And the latest numbers show the state likely surpassed that rate in 2013; 43 Vermonters died in the first 7 months from opiates.

"People sort of think of this as a lower income calamity, but there are people from all walks of life who are addicted," Emmet Helrich said.

Helrich is a retired lieutenant with the Burlington Police Department. He spent years in the drug unit working to curb the opiate epidemic.

"Every year it goes up and clearly we're not beating them," Helrich said. "It takes away their houses. It takes away jobs. It takes away families... It's everywhere and treatment is the answer."

In 2012, 914 Vermonters were treated for heroin addiction-- up 67 percent from the decade before. And 2,474 Vermonters got help for their painkiller addiction-- 10 times more than a decade ago.

"They will call themselves junkies. Nobody wants to be that. They all hate it," Helrich said. "We should put a clinic on every corner right now and doctors should be writing every day."

Vermont is now embarking on a new approach to drug treatment called Care Alliance, using the hub and spoke model. The statewide partnership pairs clinicians with treatment centers to provide medication-assisted therapy. Addicts with especially complex needs who also require methadone can get care at seven regional opioid treatment centers known as hubs. They're located in Burlington, Newport, St. Johnsbury, Berlin, Rutland, Brattleboro and West Lebanon, N.H. These hubs also connect patients with secondary support services known as spokes. This includes primary care physicians who can prescribe buprenorphine, a drug that helps wean people off opiates. People like Jane.

"I got on suboxone and I never went back," she said.

Jane used suboxone to kick her heroin habit six years ago. But there's a catch.

"I buy it off the street," she said. "I pay $25 a day."

That's because Jane has been on a treatment waiting list for seven months. She knows buying suboxone on the black market is illegal. But she has a job, and without suboxone, she can't work.

"It's frustrating," she said. "Some days I have to rip it in half and I definitely notice a difference."

Treatment professionals say with all the hubs up and running the state is now working on whittling down that waiting list. Currently 640 people who want treatment can't get it.

Vermont's health commissioner says the state spends more than $40 million a year to treat folks with opiate addiction, another $10 million-$20 million on associated motor vehicle accidents, opiate overdoses and hospitalization, and $2 million more on babies born to opiate addicted moms who suffer from neonatal withdrawal syndrome.

Then there's the cost to communities. Authorities say the growing opiate problem is fueling crime across the state, with addicts spending $60-$800 a day to feed their habits. Just last week police in Chittenden County say they caught a serial purse snatcher driven by drugs. She is one example of hundreds charged with petty crimes to fund their addictions.

"Typically they're desperate as in this case. It was motivated by drugs," Burlington Police Cpl. Tom Chenette said.

And many addicts end up clogging up dockets in county courtrooms.

"You do this business long enough, you start to see the same people over and over," Chittenden County Prosecutor T.J. Donovan said.

So Donovan developed the Rapid Intervention Community Court. The program intercepts certain low-level drug offenders arrested for crimes like disorderly conduct, retail theft, unlawful trespass, misdemeanor drug possession and fraud-- all before they are charged. If they admit guilt and start treatment within 90 days, the charges disappear. If they fail, they go back on the docket.

"We can certainly put people in jail, but when they get out the addiction is still there," Donovan said. "So what we're trying to do is create an integrated system of public health that influences and enhances our public safety by addressing the root cause of people's behavior."

But the program doesn't look anything like a court. It's more of an office staffed by Helrich, the former drug investigator now making a career out of helping addicts, breaking down the barriers to treatment.

"It's an amazing job," Helrich said. "It's a very stressful job and it's very trying because it's finding help for people who have tried everything."

Helrich currently has 81 open cases. He uses a risk-assessment tool to screen for appropriate offenders. Jane is one of them. Picked up for retail theft, her $700 a month suboxone dependency left her broke. She stole Christmas gifts. Now Jane's hoping the community court will help her make amends and get back on track.

"What they tell you at meetings is take it one day at a time," Jane said. "It's definitely true. And try not to get overwhelmed."

The Rapid Intervention Community Court has served more than 1,200 people since its inception in 2010. In December, the program expanded into Addison County. Authorities say Rutland County is next.

Of the 700 cases diverted to the program last year, only 7 percent of the participants reoffended compared to an average recidivism rate 40 percent in the general population.

Donovan admits some offenders have been given priority on the long waiting lists because of their involvement in the program, but he doesn't want to see people committing crimes just to get help.

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