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This article was first published in Green Mountain Noise, 2VR’s E-zine publication
It is a dark place. There is the ups and downs, the rushes, the pushes and pulls, the drama, scandal, and horror. A mix of blood and secrecy, Burlington’s most desperate scene is filled with white and brown powder. If you don’t know what I mean, I’m talking about heroin. Every city in this country has a counter-culture like this. Of course, there’s also dark side to the seemingly happy bar culture of Burlington. And, even within the bar culture, the opiate scene thrives.
Take for instance, Steve and his girlfriend Michelle. The two of them are twenty-four year old students at the University of Vermont. Michelle is a pretty, small girl of about 5’4’’ with a lip ring. She’s healthy looking, and relatively stable seeming, other than the occasional symptom of stress that she portrays for what we would assume to be about her boyfriend’s addiction. The two of them are into benzodiazepine pills and heroin. Steve uses heroin intra-nasally, while Michelle does not seem to use heroin at all.
Upon meeting Steve in the basement of One-Half Lounge (colloquially called Half Lounge by local Burlingtonian bar goers), I found him shouting about how desperate he was to find hard drugs. When I talked to him, he said he was down for a ticket ride, which in the language of opiates means the selling of twenty dollars worth of heroin that comes in either a small white bag about 2 x .5 inches in size, or in loose form, meaning the powder is in paper or saran wrapping. The dark haired boy with pink, and purplish black circles under his eyes was keen on the sale.
Steve is a window. UVM students don’t only drink, smoke weed and hookah, and occasionally – or not so occasionally – go on coke binges. There’s harder stuff out there, even for this majority stereotypically middle to upper-middle class white college crowd. One user that I met, Jeff, a twenty-three-year old Italian-American male originally from another part of Vermont, is an eight-year-long user. He’s not a UVM student, but a former student at another school outside of Vermont who now lives in Burlington as a full time resident.
It’s a sad world for Jeff. An artist, an intellectual, he’s been stuck in a crowd of people that he would not normally associate with. The social scene in the world of heroin is limited. For Jeff, the fifty plus people that he’s met have been majority selfish, scummy, slimy characters who simply need to get their fix and would screw anyone over in order to get there. The ratio of male to female is approximately ⅔ male, ⅓ female. The people that Jeff is involved with, he says, will rip anyone off to get what they need. Jeff himself admits that he’s been there before.
“I’ve done shitty things, too, that I’m not proud of,” says Jeff, “but I don’t want to associate with more people who do things like that.” Jeff says that in his darker days of using, he’s committed both embezzlement and theft in order to gain what he needs for his addiction to opiates. As a manager, he falsely kept books in order to make it look like the business was making less money than it actually was. The leftover cash that was not kept Jeff kept for himself in order to buy heroin.
“Though I have committed crime and acts of selfishness, I am not proud of them, and frankly am absolutely ashamed of the way I have acted and the things I have done in the past. I no longer want to associate with people that do things like this, not because I think I am better or above them, but because I have personally experienced the power that addiction can have over you. I still think that I or anyone who commits these acts is still responsible for them. I want to improve myself as a human being which not only means not letting addiction or anything for that matter persuade me to commit crime or dishonest acts.”
Jeff is, of course, not the only one who has committed illegal acts in order to sustain his habit. There are many accounts of theft that occur in the town of Burlington. For instance, if a user is unable to find a way to get money to buy heroin, it’s often possible to make a trade with the dealer. In the instance of being short of cash, a user will find out what the dealer wants and get the items for them in order to acquire drugs. Sometimes it’s baby clothes, sometimes it’s alcohol (full bottles of liquor only for the most part), prescription pills, clothes that the user might want for themselves or their partners, gift cards, or anything else that a dealer may find of value. And truthfully, an opiate addict might just trade anything. Sometimes, a heroin user is able to trade car rides for either a discount on or free tickets.
Heroin can be risky not only in terms of a person’s health, but in terms of a person’s social and financial situation, as well. As stated before, an addict would do anything to get a fix, including rip off a customer if necessary. People walk away with other people’s money. Jeff and one of his roommates, Chad, said that they’ve seen this happen before.
Or say a customer wants to buy heroin or other opiates. A dealer might tell the client that they will go pick it up, then never come back with the money. Sometimes a dealer might sell fake tickets, meaning bags filled with only cut, or sometimes a substance like sand, or a poison, that might be the same color as heroin. It’s simple and there’s nothing that anyone can do to get their money back, seeing as how using, distributing, buying, and selling heroin is illegal.
In the case of someone getting sold a fake or “blank” ticket, the consequence of shooting it can be fatal. Inexperienced users might try shooting the product that they’re sold without realizing that what they’ve bought is not actually heroin. Not everyone that uses heroin commits crimes or tries to pull a fast one on their friends and family, though. There are many dealers who will generously lend tickets or other opiates to a user who is down on their luck. And though this scenario is less common, it does happen.
In terms of physical danger, users tend to look out for one another. An experienced user will typically be willing to “hit” (meaning “to inject heroin into”) a less experienced user who might find it difficult to maneuver the logistics of pulling back the plunger and drawing blood into a syringe. Many users have narcan, a drug that reverses the effect of opiate overdose. If someone is not overdosing and narcan is administered, nothing bad will happen to the person. Narcan is now available in nasal form and is free at the Clark Street Safe Recovery Center, also known as the needle exchange.
At the Needle exchange, users can register to get free needles. A code is provided in order to anonymously identify a person. The code is on a card which the user can show upon entry to the needle exchange and receive new needles, cotton, viles of water, cookers, and anything else necessary to use heroin. Before getting narcan, there is a ten minute video demonstration that customers are required to watch so that the center staff can be sure that users will walk away knowing how to use narcan safely. The Clark Street Recovery Center has many other services: information about where to receive long term counseling, who can provide short term counseling (specifically in terms of how to help a user cut back on the amount of opiates they use), information on Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and an option to sign up for Suboxone maintenance treatment. Spectrum Youth and Family Services is another location in Burlington that specifically provides drug counseling.
Were a person able to buy heroin in a store the same way that someone buys alcohol and in some places marijuana, perhaps Burlington might see a drop in crime rates, deaths due to overdose or poisoning, and a lot less people being given a run for their money. But the bottom line is this: heroin and opiate addiction can affect anyone. Users walk among us and thrive all around Vermont’s biggest city.