Father’s Struggle Against Heroin Highlights the Cost of an Epidemic

In what appears at first to be a picture-perfect family in Vermont, there is a story of chronic addiction to prescription pills, heroin and crack cocaine.

From the outside looking in, Justin Bemis is a typical man in his early 40s living with the mother of his four children. But for the past five-years, he has struggled with an addiction to heroin that has only grown worse with time. He used to own a business cutting down trees in the small town of Rutland, Vermont, but now he now he has trouble holding down a steady job. In JUST six months, he spent $120,000 on his addiction, and now his parents manage his finances. When they didn’t give the money he wanted, he threatened them.

“I want my money,” he said in one of many voicemails he left on his father’s phone. “Send me a couple hundred f*cking dollars so I don’t have to sell your sh*t because I will sell it.”

Bemis has been a heroin addict for five years. It started after he was injured in an accident at work and given access to prescription painkillers. After doctors weaned off his supply, he began buying on the streets. It was only a matter of time until Justin could no longer afford an addiction that was costing him thousands of dollars a day

His story is all too typical — nearly four out of five people who recently started using heroin used prescription painkillers first, according to the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics.

Ever since Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin dedicated all thirty-five minutes of his State of the State address to Vermont’s heroin crisis, a flood of news article has been telling the story the same way: quaint New England town gets shredded apart by heroin epidemic.

Every week, $2 million dollars of heroin and other opiates are being trafficked into the state of Vermont. The state’s drug crisis isn’t a revelation to residents, but it is one that is turning into a reality for more and more families throughout the United States.

Still, Vermont has been considered a model for others on the topic of heroin treatment. Medical-assisted recovery centers have been opened in just about every region throughout the state. This was in part due to Shumlin’s efforts to shift the state’s emphasis toward treatment and away from law enforcement.

“You know really, if you think about the way we’ve dealt with heroin and opiate addiction, we’ve viewed as primarily a law enforcement and a judicial challenge, and that’s failing us miserably,” Shumlin told Fusion.

However, due to a law that was passed by Congress in 2000, physicians can only treat a certain number of addict patients at one time. The law was intended to curtail the over-prescription of medications like methadone, which are themselves sold on the street, but it resulted in long waiting lists at treatment centers, with many addicts unable to find the held that they need.

Bemis is one of hundreds, maybe thousands, waiting to receive a prescription for Suboxone, a medicine used to treat opioid addiction. He’s currently waiting to see Dr. Mark Logan, an addiction specialists. But because of the federal restriction, the doctor has about 40 patients on his waiting list, he said. Logan as seen that number go as high as 75. Getting that treatment would not only help Bemis, but his parents and children who watch him suffer daily.

Shumlin says the state is working to relieve some of the waiting lists, and he said he’d be “surprised if we have a waiting list challenge a year from now”

Even if Justin Bemis gets access to treatment and manages to turn the corner, his family has already paid a high price. His mother often wonders if she and her husband could have done something different to help their children stay clean — five of her six children, including Justin, have struggled with opiate addiction. But ultimately, she believes they chose their own path.

“It was choices, that they were given pretty much the freedom to make their own choices, and that’s what they did, and unfortunately, the wrong ones,” she said.

Reporter: Dan Lieberman
Producers: Veronica Bautista, Eric Herbst
Editor: Randall Sommers