ST. ALBANS — Fifty area drug suspects were targeted for arrest today as part of a huge law enforcement raid being referred to by authorities as Operation Northern Lights.

Vermont State Police Public Information Officer Stephanie Dasaro said the operation was another in a series of large arrest sweeps in Vermont employing approximately 80 law enforcement officers.

The about 50 individuals were targeted for arrest for the alleged distribution and sale of illicit drugs in the area. As of press time this morning, about 12 suspects had been apprehended and processed, according to Lt. John Flannigan, commanding officer of the Vermont State Police barracks in St. Albans.

The St. Albans Barracks served as the center of the operations.

Colonel Tom L’Esperance, director of the Vermont State Police, in a written statement provided by Dasaro said, “The Vermont State Police are pleased to be coordinating with multiple state, local, county, and federal agencies to combat the growing drug problem in the St. Albans area.”

Flannigan said that in a small state like Vermont, collaboration is crucial to certain types of investigation, like the mass drug sweep today.

“Vermont’s very unique,” the lieutenant said. “We work well together. That’s the only way we can be effective.”

Agencies involved include the Vermont State Police, St. Albans Police Department, Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, the Drug Enforcement Agency and several other neighboring departments and agencies. Flannigan confirmed that about 80 law enforcement officers participated in the sweep.

While Flannigan said he doesn’t see Franklin County as having an alarming drug problem, he did call substance abuse and addiction issues significant in the area. He said those issues are related to other sorts of crimes, including those involving violence, theft, and property damage.

Operation Northern Lights is the third sweep, of its kind, by the Vermont Drug Task Force this year. The previous arrest sweeps were in Bennington and Springfield, according to a statement provided by Dasaro.

The sweep is serving as a reminder that the sale of illegal substances won’t be tolerated, said Sgt. Joseph Thomas, of the St. Albans Police Department. He called the successful investigation and subsequent arrests “a great day for law enforcement and for the community.”

Thomas said all the agencies were more than prepared for making the arrests today.

“We always prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” he said.

The current arrest sweep is the culmination of six months of joint investigation, primarily for the sale of narcotics, including prescription drugs and heroin, Flannigan said. He said the investigation stems from drug-related crimes and an increase in overdoses and deaths due to substance abuse.

Two Franklin County men were recently arrested for involvement in the heroin overdose death of a 23-year-old Highgate woman.

Flannigan said this morning that heroin has been made more readily available and is cheaper in the area at this time. He likened the increase in heroin activity to simple supply and demand.

A press conference was scheduled for later today at the St. Albans Barracks located on Fisher Pond Road (Route 104) where this morning law enforcement officers, plain-clothed and uniformed, traveled in and out, occasionally with suspects.

The most recent drug raid involving multiple agencies, but not rising to the level of today’s effort, was conducted on March 18, 2009. Then about 50 uniformed officers from state and local police agencies swept Franklin County for 17 suspects allegedly tied to the drug trade in what authorities had dubbed “Operation Rail City.”

Then, too, processing of suspects took place at the VSP St. Albans barracks. St. Albans and Swanton Police and the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office were involved in the operation that led to charges of narcotic trafficking and possession.

Operation Rail City was part of a two-phase sting that began with the discover of a drug network that had distributed of thousands of prescription pills — primarily OxyContin, Vicodin, Morphine, Percocet and Suboxone — in Franklin County. Police later estimated the value of the drug ring’s weekly profits at about $100,000.

Coincidentally, this weekend will see the Vermont premier of a much-touted Kingdom County Productions documentary film made in St. Albans. “The Hungry Heart,” to be shown Saturday at 7 p.m. at Bellows Free Academy, focuses on opiate addicts in Franklin County and their efforts to salvage their lives.

Police, however, have stressed all along that drug addiction and trafficking is not a Franklin County problem alone, as is shown by the two most recent operations conducted elsewhere in the state.

The Messenger is following the drug sweep today and will have additional details in Wednesday’s edition.