Vergennes takes stock of drug abuse problem

VERGENNES — More than 250 Vergennes-area residents attended a Wednesday meeting called by Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel that was intended to spark a community-wide effort to combat illegal drug use in the city and surrounding towns.
The crowd in the St. Peter’s Church Parish Hall often applauded Merkel and other speakers at what moderator Scott Gaines of Vergennes called a “community awareness meeting,”
Among those who drew the most attention were recovering addict Andrew Coyle of Ferrisburgh; Diane Many of Salisbury, whose daughter died of a drug overdose; and school and law enforcement officials who outlined the problems they face and tactics they use.
Those officials also asked people at the meeting to take the next step and become involved.
“There’s a lot of power in this room … You really come with a lot of influence,” said Vermont State Police Lt. Gary Genova. “We’re going to ask for your help as we look at these issues.”
Another meeting is planned at 7 p.m. on Jan. 11 in the Parish Hall at which more specific steps will be discussed — only a few were mentioned on Wednesday. Merkel and others hope Wednesday’s momentum will not be lost.
“We can either choose to ignore this issue, or face this issue head-on,” Merkel said. “We will create a community attitude that sends the message that all narcotics and those that sell them are not welcome here.”
Vergennes Union High School officials also said community members could make a difference in the lives of local at-risk youths.
Lee Shorey, who runs the VUHS Resource Response Center that deals with many at-risk youths, said simply interacting with or mentoring kids would help — showing up is what is important.
“People should leave here tonight knowing what sort of resource they are,” Shorey said. “The important thing in this is your presence.”
Merkel, who has been regularly meeting with and mentoring VUHS students, said drug issues in the Vergennes area are by no means limited to youths, but he believes prevention efforts and education should be on the table in January.
“This is not directed at kids. This is directed at the community as a whole,” Merkel said. “But if there is a place to start, it’s right there.”
Some at the Wednesday meeting hoped for more specifics, and one questioner said she was hearing “problems, not solutions.”
Gaines answered that the gathering was just intended show the extent of drugs in the community and their impact.
“This is an awareness meeting,” Gaines said. “Working together we will make a difference.”
Merkel did offer statistics, including that individuals with drug problems are behind 80 percent of criminal activity, including thefts, burglaries, break-ins, home invasions, and credit card and check fraud.
Other data Merkel used came from the most recent at-risk behavior survey filled out by VUHS students, which stated:
•  39 percent had used marijuana, 22 percent within the past 30 days.
•  9 percent had started using marijuana at the age of 13 or younger.
•  5 percent had used an inhalant.
•  8 percent had used hallucinogenic drugs.
•  9 percent had illegally used a prescription narcotic.
VUHS student Austin Nary asked Merkel if he had seen an increase in drug use.
“I can’t say there has been an up-tick, but there certainly hasn’t been a drop,” Merkel said. “I think there is an issue in our community. It’s not unique to our community, but it is here.”
In a response to a question of whether mental health woes are playing a role in substance abuse issues, VUHS Co-Principal Ed Webbley said he did not see an increase of drug issues at the school.
“Our mental health problems have skyrocketed, while our drug problems are relatively stable,” Webbley said.
The speakers showed the impact drugs have on the community regardless of trends.
Coyle said he started using marijuana when he was 12 years old and heroin when he was 16. After several failed attempts at rehab for his addiction, which he fed by dealing, Coyle said he finally “realized I didn’t want to be found dead by a friend or family member.”
Now, he said, he has been off drugs for more than a year.
“Now I’m sober and loving life,” Coyle said, to the evening’s loudest applause.
Merkel called Coyle “a very courageous young man,” but also sounded a cautionary note.
“I think it’s safe to say that’s the exception, not the rule,” he said.
Merkel said he had recently spoken to another heroin addict trying to kick the habit who was on a waiting list for suboxone, a withdrawal drug — at No. 144 on the list. Amy Yandow Kittredge, who works with a Burlington clinic, said the wait there for heroin withdrawal drugs is typically a year.
“Let us hope we can stem the flow of people who need to go to those clinics,” Merkel said. “What can we do about it? Start with our kids.”
Many told of difficulty getting help for her daughter Danielle, who died of an overdose in April. Many had hoped that Danielle would get treatment in prison, but said that proved not to be the case: The overdose came a week after her release.
“There’s not enough help out there,” Many said.
Many tearfully spoke of her loss.
“Losing my own child was the worst pain I’ve ever had,” she said. “The pain is so unbearable I can’t explain it.”
A Vergennes businesswoman put another face on an effect of drugs: She said she lost $1,200 to a recent break-in and asked if there was hope for its recovery.
Merkel said his department was doing what it could, but could make no promises about a crime he called symptomatic.
“They steal copper wire, they steal catalytic converters, they steal chain saws,” he said. “They steal anything they can to feed their habits.”
Car dealer Tom Denecker asked Addison County State’s Attorney David Fenster why more of the repeat offenders are not locked up.
Fenster said he and police work together to jail the worst offenders, while being mindful that Vermont has 2,200 prison beds and Addison County has three Probation and Parole officers.
People in his office try to distinguish among those who need treatment or prison, Fenster said.
“I can tell you we don’t treat everyone the same,” he said. “We recognize the people who are in it for profit.”
Merkel repeatedly said prevention might be the best cure. He joked that if he could meet students in full uniform, others wearing less-conspicuous street clothes could sit down with them, too.
“(We need to) get more people involved and do the simple things,” he said. “I’m kind of rigid and strict up here. If I can do it looking like that, you can do it, too.”
Shorey echoed Merkel.
“When children are involved in something they feel proud of, it is remarkable the change in them,” she said, adding, “You’ve got to have those mentors, you’ve got to have those resources.”
A consistent message was that parents should be a focus. Shorey said parents needed to be “very, very able to say no.”
Ferrisburgh physician Tim Bicknell said parents are the first line of defense when kids resell prescription drugs like Ritalin, prescribed for hyperactivity.
“If your kid has Ritalin, he should never have the prescription in his hand … It is the parents’ responsibility to control that medication,” Bicknell said.
Addison resident Paul Boivin also suggested the effort should focus some of its energy on parents.
“We’re educating the kids, but maybe we should be educating the parents,” said Boivin, who concluded, “It takes a lot to be a parent in this day and age.”
Merkel also agreed with city resident Tom Heeter’s suggestion that the police department’s canine be allowed into schools to search for drugs, and hoped more people would “report at-risk behavior by adults or children.”
The concrete suggestions, however, will come in January. After this meeting, officials were optimistic.
“I’m very excited,” said Vergennes Mayor Mike Daniels. “I think with the right resources, and the right volunteers, we’ll see some progress.”
Merkel said he was stunned by the turnout and excited by the energy.
“It was beyond my wildest imagination, and I’m very, very pleased that we had this kind of turnout, and I hope we have this kind of turnout in the future,” Merkel said. “And if people approach this the same way, we’ll be successful.”
Mike Reiderer, director of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes, said existing programs and partnerships could get a lift from new volunteers, and the club would welcome mentors for its members.
He, too, was hopeful.
“Any time the community gets together like this with energy and passion and enthusiasm,” Reiderer said, “there’s no limit to what can happen.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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