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OxyContin use down in Vt. but heroin use increases

WATERBURY, Vt. — Efforts to make OxyContin harder to abuse have succeeded in Vermont, the top state police drug investigator says. But that has come with one notable consequence: Addicts have been switching to an older scourge: heroin.

Statistics provide a glimpse of Vermont’s growing heroin problems. Deaths attributed in whole or in part to heroin overdoses averaged fewer than three a year from 2004 to 2010. There were nine such deaths last year, and six this year, according to figures from the state Health Department.

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Investigators, counselors, and others combating drug abuse were elated two years ago when OxyContin’s manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, reformulated the prescription pain medicine, Lieutenant Matt Birmingham, head of the Vermont Drug Task Force, said in an interview. ‘‘Thank God,’’ he said.

OxyContin was designed for use by cancer patients and others suffering serious pain. It was to be taken every 12 hours, releasing oxycodone into the body gradually. However, addicts were chewing the pills or grinding and snorting them for an instant high. The new formula turns the pills into a gummy mass when they’re ground up, making them less appealing to addicts.

But in the past two years, heroin has come to the fore in Vermont, with use spreading into high schools.

‘‘Unfortunately, the younger kids think they can start by snorting heroin,’’ a method that avoids the stigma and fear surrounding possibly dirty needles, Birmingham said. ‘‘You can get addicted all the same,’’ he said, adding that young people ‘‘generally end up injecting once they get a full-blown addiction.’’

In addition to spreading to a younger group of users, heroin is circulating more widely in Vermont’s rural areas. In the southeastern town of Chester, police raided an apartment early last month and arrested nine people. They also seized $18,000 in cash, heroin with a street value of $20,000, crack cocaine worth $6,200, and OxyContin pills valued at $4,000.

Birmingham said drug distribution networks in the state appear to have become better organized. A decade ago, he said, people would come into Vermont with a shipment of drugs and set up shop in an addict’s house to sell them until the supply ran out.

‘‘Now, we’re seeing kind of organized networks within the state that some of the dealers can stay in New York City or Albany and wherever the source areas are, and just sort of keep the flow going to the established networks in Vermont. So that concerns us greatly,’’ he said.

The response must combine law enforcement, education, and treatment for addicts, Birmingham said.

‘‘Law enforcement realized very quickly that we cannot solve this problem at all by arresting our way out of it. It’s just not going to happen,’’ he said. ‘‘As long as there is a demand here for heroin and opiate products, the supply will just keep coming. And you’re just not going to stop it unless you build a 20-foot fence around the state.’’

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