Five years ago, townspeople thought they knew how to stop the heroin trade.

They closed a public health program that gave away 50,000 sterile needles a year to reduce the spread of AIDS, hepatitis and other diseases among some 300 client-addicts.

The program had become a lightning rod for public anger about drugs after a 2-year-old girl was pricked in her yard by a discarded syringe. Critics said free needles attracted addicts and addicts attracted dealers. When the program shut down in March 1997, it became the only state-sponsored exchange ever closed in America.

But heroin continued flowing into town, as it has for more than 30 years.

``Our needle exchange went away, but not our heroin problem,'' town AIDS outreach worker Kathey Fowler said recently as she inspected an addict's shooting gallery a block from Main Street. She plucked five used syringes from the ground and carefully put them into an old coffee can she found.

``All of the problems blamed on the exchange still remain,'' said Robert Broadhead, a University of Connecticut sociology professor who studied the exchange's rise, fall and aftermath. ``Including a large and active illicit drug scene.''

That's why bloody syringes still end up in town parks, on the banks of the Willimantic River, by the pay phone behind the Cumberland Farms and in dozens of other spots favored by the town's 200 to 300 junkies.

It's why cops can break down the door of an apartment and find a dealer with 7,000 bags of heroin and $15,000 in cash in his bedside table.

It's why longtime residents have nicknamed the drug-plagued sections off Milk Street ``Sodom.''

And it's why ``Willimantic is the heroin capital of Connecticut,'' according to Clifford Thornton, a retired telephone company executive from Windsor whose nationally known group, Efficacy, seeks the legalization of drugs and the elimination of mandatory minimum jail terms.

But is legalization the answer? What about a massive police crackdown or better treatment services?

Can heroin ever be uprooted here? Or have illegal drugs become as permanent as the granite bedrock under the town?

Interviews with police, social workers, longtime residents and community leaders show no consensus on a plan of attack. In fact, a feeling of weary resignation seems to weave through their comments.

``At a certain point, you do become hardened by it,'' said Roger Adams, chairman of the Windham Chamber of Commerce. ``It's there and is a part of life.''

Funding And Priorities

Local police insist they could make an impact if they weren't hampered by lack of resources and funding.

State Sen. Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Killingly, says Willimantic may need outside help to combat its drug problem, including bringing in the state police.

``I think it's fairly well-known there has been a drug-trafficking problem in and around Willimantic,'' Williams said. ``We have to step up our resources and put people in jail who are bringing the drugs in.''

State Police Sgt. Jeff Hotsky, a supervisor at the Statewide Narcotics Task Force, said that with enough police officers ``you could saturate the area. ... You could drive them from one part of the city to the next. It does make it a lot more difficult for them.''