In this Fusion Investigates series, “The Drug Warriors,” we travel to Rutland, Vermont, to meet warriors on different front lines: law enforcement battling drugs on the ground and a family fighting drug addiction in their home.

Part 1

America is losing the war on drugs.

Over the past four decades, the U.S. has spent an estimated $1 trillion on the drug war, putting billions of dollars into law enforcement and interdiction efforts that have had little or no effect on reducing the number of drug users or abusers in this country. All while addicts seeking treatment wait weeks or months to get help.

Vermont has garnered national attention since Gov. Peter Shumlin declared a “full-blown heroin crisis” earlier this year. It’s a familiar claim, one that has been echoed by politicians since President Nixon launched the war on drugs four decades ago. But Vermont’s governor says he has a new approach: focus more on treatment rather than law enforcement.

The recent spike in heroin use in Vermont and nationwide lends new urgency to the effort. Fatal heroin overdoses are up nearly 50% since 2006. Demand for opiate treatment in the Green Mountain state alone has spiked nearly 800 percent since 2000.

In this 5-part series, we travel to Rutland, Vermont, to see warriors on different front lines: law enforcement battling drugs on the ground and a family fighting drug addiction in their home.

Part 2

The Vermont Department of Health says there are 503 people on the waiting list for heroin treatment as of September 16, 2014. But health providers say the number of people who need help is much higher.

Part 3

Justin Bemis and his family deal with the effects of his heroin withdrawal while he is stuck on a waiting list for treatment. As Justin listens to disturbing voicemails he left for his parents asking for money – which they feared he would use to buy drugs — Justin is forced to confront the toll his addiction has taken on him and his family. He shows signs of improvement, but is struggling to get the medication he needs to help him cope with his symptoms.

Part 4

Police in Rutland are fighting a battle with drugs on the streets while Justin and his parents struggle with his heroin addiction at home.

Police say they are taking a new approach to deal with the drug problem. They now see addiction as a disease – not just a law enforcement issue. Police say they are working with social service agencies and sending some drug users to treatment centers instead of jail. But drug-related arrests in Rutland are still the highest they’ve been in four years.


Source: Office of National Drug Control Policy, 2012


In the last of five episodes, Fusion cameras are rolling as state police arrest nearly a dozen people for trafficking in a city-wide heroin sweep. Police suspect a bad batch of heroin has arrived to town, leading to six heroin overdoses in October. For the lucky ones, treatment has provided them with a new lease on life.


Source: CDC "Increases in Heroin Overdose Deaths-28 States, 2010-2012"


Photos: Drug Enforcement Agency

Special Thanks to the Bemis Family for sharing their story.