A raw wound
A string of armed robberies in Rutland and Barre over the past few weeks has heightened worries that crime, driven by addiction, is on the increase. These incidents underscore the importance of the message by Gov. Peter Shumlin in his State of the State address that the state must attack the problem of drug addiction in a comprehensive way.
The latest incident occurred late last week when someone persuaded an elderly gentleman in a supermarket parking lot to give him a ride to a medical office. Once in the car, the man pulled out a gun and told his victim to drive on, eventually letting the victim out and driving off with his car.
This action follows upon a series of incidents, including two robberies the first weekend of this month when a robber entered a convenience store with a knife and demanded cash.
The previous Wednesday someone with a knife robbed a pizza delivery driver.
On Christmas Eve, one of the convenience stores that was robbed in January was subject to another attempted knifepoint robbery, though the robber fled when the clerk did not cooperate.
The evening of Thanksgiving, a convenience store in Wallingford was robbed.
In the past two weeks there have also been two armed robberies in Barre.
This spate of robberies has come at a time when state officials have placed unusual focus on the widening problem of addiction to prescription drugs and heroin. The culprits in these recent crimes have not been found, and officials don’t know if these specific crimes were motivated by the need to buy drugs. But they fit the pattern of crime committed out of a desperate need for cash to feed a voracious, unyielding addiction.
Overall in Vermont, crime rates have not been on the rise. Prosecutions by the U.S. attorney’s office in Vermont for heroin offenses have risen from 12 indictments in 2010 to 72 in 2013. But as Max Schlueter of the Vermont Center for Justice Research said to a reporter from Seven Days, arrests or prosecutions may not be the best measure of the problem because they may be measuring intensified enforcement rather than increased drug use. He said a better measure was property crime, which actually fell by 6 percent between 2008 and 2012.
In a similar vein, the numbers cited by Shumlin about the huge increase in demand for treatment of opiate addiction partly reflect the fact that more treatment options are available than previously. Nevertheless, the waiting list for treatment is lengthy, leaving out in the cold many addicts who are ready to kick their habits.
Thus, it may be that the recent string of crimes in Rutland is an aberration, but its effect is nevertheless real. Crime is the raw wound that addicts inflict on society. Crimes like the recent carjacking create an atmosphere of fear and undermine a community’s sense of well-being. Armed robbery or car theft must be dealt with.
At the same time, Shumlin is correct in placing the focus of his administration on treatment options for those with addictions. By the time addicts are robbing gas stations or stealing cars, it is too late. Police at the highest levels have warned that we cannot arrest ourselves out of the problem. When addicts reach the point that they feel compelled to take a knife into a convenience store for ready cash, we have already lost.
It must be the aim of the state to reach that person before he arrives at that point and to do everything possible to get him off the track of addiction and crime. Shumlin has insisted that drug addiction is at its core a health problem, allowing him to marshal the state’s resources more effectively than he would if he were to pursue an outdated and ineffective war on drugs.
At the same time, the Legislature must be mindful of its health care priorities. Shumlin’s budget proposal includes the diversion of millions of dollars of tobacco settlement money into the budget gap that he is trying to close without raising taxes. In fact, tobacco kills far more Vermonters than heroin does. Pillaging money from the campaign to reduce smoking is a perennial temptation that in the end is always self-defeating.
There is no specific contest between anti-drug and anti-tobacco programs for money from the budget, but if additional spending to fight drugs is dependent on cutting tobacco funds, other choices ought to be made. Tobacco is the most lethal drug in Vermont. It may not cause people to rob gas stations, and it kills more slowly than a heroin overdose, but it kills.