The Vermont State Police and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, announced Monday that a federal Justice Department grant funded six new positions on the Vermont State Police Drug Task Force.
The $1.4-million grant will pay for five detectives and one intelligence analyst, who will focus on disrupting the sale of heroin in Vermont, the commander of the Vermont State Police said.
The expansion increases the number of Task Force investigators from 19 to 24, according to Vermont State Police and Sen. Leahy.
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"In my years in the Senate, and in my years before it as a prosecutor, I've never seen anything like this," Leahy said of the opiate addiction epidemic. "I've never had anything that's torn at me as much as this does."
Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen said Monday on average, emergency services teams in Vermont are now seeing an average of 2.2 or more overdoses a day from heroin or prescription pill abuse. While those overdoses aren't all fatal, that's a big number in a small state, Chen said.
The addition of powerful painkillers like fentanyl and carfentanil, which is used to sedate elephants and large animals, is adding new dangers to the national heroin epidemic, Chen noted.
"We are, quite frankly, overwhelmed at the moment on the law enforcement end of things with the amount of heroin that's coming into the state currently," said Col. Matt Birmingham, the commander of the Vermont State Police. "Our investigations are up about 70 percent this past year on heroin alone."
Maj. Glenn Hall of the Vermont State Police Criminal Division said historically, traffickers have brought heroin into Vermont from New York City, Hartford, Connecticut, and the Springfield, Massachusetts area.
"The single most important asset in doing this work is drug investigators themselves," Hall told reporters Monday. "So these positions, while five doesn't seem like a lot, it is a significant increase in the work we are doing now."
Hall explained that the grant money funded the hiring and training of new state troopers, who then replaced other troopers who were elevated to the Drug Task Force.
Leahy said he will seek renewals of the federal grant money in the future, based on what he hears is working from the Vermont State Police Drug Task Force.
Cari Kelley of Grand Isle, Vermont told necn she still misses her cousin Debbie, a Midwesterner who died from an opiate overdose in 2012, after battling addiction for 30 years.
"It's tragic," Kelley said. "And I would say to my kids, if you get involved in drugs, these are the types of things that could possibly happen to you. And we want to make sure that it doesn't."
Kelley said she would like it if the new efforts announced Monday by the Vermont State Police and Sen. Leahy help spare another family the loss of a loved one.
"She's always on my mind," Kelley said of her late cousin. "It's really scary to watch a family member go through that, and every time I talk to someone anywhere in the country, they say, 'Our biggest problem is opiates.'"
Dr. Chen and Sen. Leahy pointed out that while those new detectives hope to make a dent in the supply side of the drug epidemic, when it comes to demand, health officials, community groups, and non-profits must maintain a laser focus on treatment, education, and prevention.
According to the U.S. Justice Department, Vermont was one of six states to receive anti-heroin grants. Law enforcement agencies in Maine, Michigan, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Wisconsin also shared in the nearly $6-million in grant money awarded in September 2015.