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As Vermont Cracks Down On Heroin, Crack Cocaine Use Surges

A photo showing a small plastic baggie with white powdery substance clumped in two balls, against dirt in the background.
Yves BarriAre
In the last six months, officials have seen a surge in crack cocaine use. Now there is concern Vermont may be suffering from what is called the "balloon effect": By focusing on one drug, the market for another grows.

When you think of drug use in Vermont, you probably think about the opioid epidemic. Back in 2014, Gov. Peter Shumlin dedicated his entire State of the State address to it. And the problem become a top priority for treatment professionals and law enforcement.

But sometimes, a crackdown on one drug makes the illegal drug market shift toward another, and Vermont authorities have noticed a surge in crack cocaine use and related violence.

Reporter Gina Tron looked at the state's resurgence of crack for Vice and joined VPR to discuss the situation in Vermont. 

On the relationship between the crackdown on heroin use and the surge in crack cocaine use in the state:

"There's a phenomenon called the 'balloon effect' where a focus on one drug can actually allow another drug market to blossom," Tron says. "It's a characteristic of drug enforcement across the world. The demand for drugs doesn't go away with enforcement, instead the illegal market just mutate and shifts. Dealers find ways around obstacles, and sometimes that manifest in the form of selling a different drug."

So is the surge a result of a shift in law enforcement resources or because users suddenly want to start to use a different drug? Tron says it's a "little bit of both."

"From what I've gathered from both police and other experts is if one drug has a lot of heat on it from the police and media it may be a little bit easier to push another drug."

Tron also say that the surge in use should not be interpreted as a sign that crack cocaine left the state and returned, but instead that "crack has always been here to some extent."

"Even back in 2002, the National Drug Intelligence Center did a drug threat assessment on Vermont and it listed heroin as the number one threat to the state, and crack cocaine as the second. That assessment said that criminal groups were increasingly converting powdered cocaine into crack in Vermont," Tron says. "Now for the last six months there's been a resurgence of crack.

"According to police before the last six months, there was a decreased amount of crack cocaine seen for about eighteen months," Tron explains. "That is when heroin was really skyrocketing here. Now for the past six months, crack is back in Vermont and police are really seeing a resurgence of it.

"Back in 2002, the National Drug Intelligence Center did a drug threat assessment on Vermont and it listed heroin as the number one threat to the state and crack cocaine as the second." — Reporter Gina Tron

"They're often seeing it in combination with heroin weirdly enough. And even before the violent incidents late last year police were telling me that they were surprised that the media wasn't focusing on crack because they are aware that it is very much here.

"Even here in Montpelier, the police chief was telling me that crack cocaine is very prevalent and that there needs to be more focus on it," said Tron.

Tron's piece highlights the violent nature of recent crack cocaine-related incidents in Vermont. Tron says it's tied to the type of people the illegal drug trade attracts.

"In the illegal drug trade you are dealing with people who are either dangerous or desperate, and oftentimes both," Tron says. "It's a lucrative business, and with lucrative illegal businesses comes gang-affiliated activity. We have had a big increase in gang-related activity, violent crimes as well as nonviolent crimes, and it's all connected to the drug problem."

On what do authorities are doing to address the problem:

"Police both state and local have repeatedly admitted that they just don't have the funding and resources to take this on efficiently — both with heroin and crack," Tron explains. "We're focusing so much on heroin because it's affecting more people than crack but we can't even take that on. So taking on another drug is adding another issue and another burden to the already drain resources that the police are dealing with.

"I talked to Steve Rolles, he's a senior police policy analyst for Transform Drug Policy Foundation and he said that he believes that the only solution to Vermont's drug problems and the violence that comes with it is legalization and government regulation of drugs. He said that would reduce the balloon effect as well as the need for expensive drug enforcement.

"He claims that the war on drugs has actually given control of the market to dangerous people. Since there is no formal legal regulation, the violence ends up taking its place."

Annie Russell was VPR's Deputy News Director. She came to VPR from NPR's Weekends on All Things Considered and WNYC's On The Media. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School.
Alex was a reporter and host of VPR's local All Things Considered. He was also the co-host and co-creator of the VPR program Brave Little State.
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