The state set a grim record in 2021: 210 Vermonters died from drug overdoses. Sixteen of them were our neighbors in Bennington County; 20 lived with us in Windham County. Our counties had among the highest overdose death rates in the state, well above the statewide figure.
The impact of those numbers were front and center this week in Bennington, with a police raid of several local apartments resulting in the arrest of seven part- and full-time residents charged with dealing fentanyl and heroin, as well as the federal arrest in Bennington of a Massachusetts man also charged with selling fentanyl.
A staggering 93 percent of the state’s 2021 opioid overdose deaths involved fentanyl, and 46 percent involved a combination of fentanyl and cocaine, according to the Health Department.
“That’s the world we live in right now,” said Ralph Bennett, the emergency department director of Turning Point Center of Bennington.
While there is a role for law enforcement to play in tackling this crisis, it’s a world we cannot and should not arrest our way out of. Instead, let’s change that world.
First, the Health Department has launched a campaign to reverse the negative stigma we as a society seem to use as a lens when viewing addiction. Stigmatizing addiction feeds shame, making it harder to get sober and easier to reach for drugs. It also increases the likelihood of someone isolating from friends and family, using drugs alone, with no help in the event of an overdose.
No one chooses to become addicted to cocaine, heroin or fentanyl. Addiction is an illness, not unlike cancer, deserving of our full-on emotional and medical support.
In addition, we know that Narcan saves lives by reversing the effects of opiates. Everyone should have easy access to Narcan — especially the friends, families, co-workers and neighbors of those with substance use disorders. Turning Point (whose services are free, funded primarily by grants from federal and state programs) gives Narcan to anyone who asks. If you want it, get it. There is no shame in planning ahead to save a life.
The nonprofit also provides fentanyl strips to enable users to test their drugs for the presence of the opioid that is 100 times more potent than morphine.
Perhaps the most important need to stem the flood of overdose deaths is connection — making sure anyone who wants help can get it … immediately. Often, an overdose can spark a realization, a desire to get sober. Those services must be available at that moment, and extend from start to sober: Narcan, medically assisted treatment, counseling, supportive housing and more. People who want to get sober need to be around people who have gotten sober, not returned to the streets and the dealers that fed their addiction.
Two such recovery houses are planned for Bennington, on Gage Street for up to eight men, and on North Street for up to nine women. Those have been in the works for two years and need to move forward; this community requires a place where people recovering from a substance use disorder can get the support they need to stay sober.
One example of what can be accomplished is Jenna’s House in Johnson, started by the parents of a young woman who died from an overdose. Jenna’s House provides sober housing, treatment services, a support community and a work program that teaches job skills. That structured environment, surrounded by others who have gotten clean and sober, helps those addicted to drugs reclaim their lives.
Predatory drug dealers who conduct their deadly business in Southern Vermont deserve to be locked up. Full stop.
But our neighbors with substance use disorders deserve our best efforts and support to stay alive and get sober. Full stop.