SPRINGFIELD -- Almost three dozen people in the area were arrested Wednesday as part of an expanding effort to tamp down a burgeoning problem with opiate drugs, especially heroin, across the state, police said.
Three people remained at large following the Springfield area sweep, which was part of a six-month operation by the Vermont Drug Task Force and state and federal agencies called Operation Precision Valley. The operation was similar to a raid carried out in the Bennington area earlier this year that resulted in the arrests of 47 people, said state police Col. Tom L'Esperance.
"I think the result of today's arrests will certainly have an impact on the area long term," L'Esperance said.
Officials hinted more such sweeps could be coming.
For the last several months, state and federal police and state social services officials have warned of a growing problem with opiates that is being blamed, at least in part, on aggressive marketing by drug dealers and addicts who are turning to heroin because it's cheaper than illegal prescription drugs.
Wednesday's 33 arrests were carried out by a mobile enforcement team of state troopers and county and local officers who work together to combat street level crime, L'Esperance said. Distribution networks are being targeted by the state police drug task force and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
"This is a problem that we are seeing throughout the state of Vermont," said Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn.
The arrests in Springfield, a town of about 10,000 residents, are the first step in helping the community fight the drug problem, authorities said.
"This is a good start," Flynn said. "We realize the opiate problem in Vermont is nothing that we can just arrest our way out of."
Over the next few months a variety of other programs will be used to continue the fight against illegal drugs. Flynn said authorities need to further educate the community about the perils of illegal drug use.
"It's one thing to address the supply, but we need to address the demand," he said.
The community also will need to look at rehabilitation of addicts.
Most of the people arrested, men and women age 18 to 47, were from the Springfield area, although some were from New Jersey. Most were charged with the sale of heroin and cocaine, although there were a few other charges as well.
As part of the operation, police searched two residences, one in Springfield and one in nearby Ludlow. Police did not say if any weapons were recovered.
L'Esperance said the sweep and the publicity surrounding the arrests would be a good way for parents to start conversations with their children about drugs.
"If parents don't have the courage to have the conversation with their children and they're relying on state resources to have it for them, it's not going to work," L'Esperance said. "This has to start at home."