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This commentary is by Eric Peterson of Bennington, a longtime theater director, playwright, teacher and columnist.
Bennington has a drug problem. So does every other city and town in the United States.
Illegal drugs bring with them crime and a plethora of guns, overdoses and destroyed personal relationships. Drugs lead to lost jobs, divorce, poverty and death.
Drugs decades ago were thought to be a habit jazz musicians had. Then it became an inner-city issue (read: a Black problem). Then psychedelic drugs morphed into a predicament messing up rock performers and their idolizing young fans.
All those years, of course, drugs were actually a deadly problem for every class, race, gender, and socioeconomic group in the country.
Now there is deadly fentanyl, with which drug pushers are lacing a variety of recreational drugs. That can be a prescription for instant death for users who don’t know what they’re taking.
The Bennington Banner’s front page routinely features articles about drug sales, drug arrests, drug overdoses and deaths. Early this month, the paper reported a “staggering number of overdoses — including one fatality — over a four-day period.” There were 11 overdoses in just four days. Eleven! In quiet, lovely, historic Bennington.
The word Bennington could be replaced in that sentence with the name of hundreds, thousands of small towns all across the nation. Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette has spoken forcefully, pleadingly, about the devastation drugs are causing here.
“It’s discouraging. I mean, it’s so frustrating to come to work and think, OK, should I bring an extra Narcan out with me today?” Doucette said in a recent interview. He spoke about the need for help from the community.
The “see something, say something” idea applies here. Neighbors helped police with information leading to the recent arrest of residents on Depot Street who were involved in the selling of crack cocaine and other drugs.
At a recent presentation on the status of the redevelopment of the former Bennington High School, the issue of crime in that neighborhood was brought up. It was pointed out that greatly increasing the number of residents of that portion of Main Street can be a strong deterrent to crime. People on the streets mean less crime. Nefarious activities are best accomplished far from observant eyes.
My first apartment in New York City was in Spanish Harlem. The rent was extremely cheap even in those long-ago years, a mere $90.12 per month. There were always people on the street day and night, regardless of the time or weather. That is, until the city began demolishing every building on the block to make room for the expansion of a hospital.
I lived in the very last apartment building on the street. Slowly, as building after building came down, the activity on the block diminished. By the time only mine was left standing, the bodega on the first floor had closed, and there were no longer people sitting on stoops talking, playing dominoes, singing, debating, making out, etc.
It became treacherous walking from the subway home, regardless of the time. I dealt with attempted muggings twice. The second time, the guy had a knife (lucky it was before the ubiquity of guns) but the assailant badly needed a fix and was so weakened I was able to push him off and down the stairs, leading to the apartment house’s front door.
After that second attempt, I began staying with my girlfriend across town in a safer neighborhood that was alive with people day and night.
Ask any social worker dealing with family issues and she will tell you that drugs are a leading cause of the breakup of families. Children are growing up with grandparents, foster parents, in group homes or other institutions because their parents are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Some children live in an endless string of “temporary homes.” It affects their schooling, their social maturity and every aspect of their lives.
We are losing too many people who can be productive members of society. We desperately need more teachers, more social workers, more police and firefighters, physicians, nurses, machinists, carpenters, CPAs, truck drivers, pilots, military personnel, journalists, etc. Losing smart, talented people to a life of drugs affects everyone.
We cannot be passive. If you see something, say something. Drop a dime and call a cop. Our neighborhoods will not be free of the scourge of drugs without the participation of the entire community. Drug counselors, police officers and the court system can’t do it alone. Every person with a drug habit is a person in desperate need of intervention.
And let’s remember that we can’t get away from this problem by moving to another town or city. The drug problem is everywhere. It has been with us for a long time and its eradication demands a longtime commitment.
Harm reduction approaches are gaining adherents. Simply criminalizing the problem has never worked. Needle exchange programs reduce infections and overdoses, according to the CDC. They educate users on safe practices and act as hubs connecting them to treatment programs over time.
Fentanyl test strips are now legal in 37 states, including Vermont. They can save lives. This is a long war here and throughout the country. But it is a battle that must be fought. Winning it will take a village, a state, a country, and, indeed, the world to win.