Author Topic: its not like its unique to the modern era, 19th c addiction in Vermont  (Read 1984 times)

Offline clinton (OP)

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Gov. Peter Shumlin’s State of the State address in 2014 shocked many people.

“In every corner of our state, heroin and opiate drug addiction threatens us,” the governor declared. The problem was so serious that Shumlin took the extraordinary step of dedicating his entire address to a single issue.

The image of Vermont beset with a drug addiction crisis was jarring. It ran counter to the popular perception of the state as a secluded community immune to the horrors of modern life.

The news might have been less stunning if people had known of an earlier and equally alarming report prepared by a University of Vermont dean about opiate abuse by Vermonters. The dean revealed that, based on his survey of doctors and druggists, Vermonters consumed an average of one-and-a-half doses per adult per day. It’s an astonishing figure made all the more stunning by the fact that the dean believed that, because of the uncooperativeness of many he surveyed, the true number of doses was perhaps five times higher.

Don’t feel bad if you missed news of this report, however. It’s not exactly new. The dean, Dr. Ashbel Parmlee Grinnell, issued it in 1900.
The 115-year-old report is getting fresh attention thanks to Gary Shattuck, a writer and historian. Shattuck has unearthed sobering facts about the state’s history of opiate abuse. His research forms the basis of his essay in the new issue of Vermont History, the journal of the Vermont Historical Society. Shattuck will also deliver a lecture on his research at UVM on Oct. 20.

Like Shumlin’s speech, Shattuck’s findings will surprise many people, even some longtime Vermont historians. Shattuck has a way of shining a light into the dark corners of the state’s past, and finding, well, darkness. A former assistant U.S. Attorney for Vermont, he is the author of “Insurrection, Corruption & Murder in Early Vermont: Life on the Wild Northern Frontier,” a book that detailed the shadowy world of smuggling during the early 1800s.
Shattuck says it is his nature, and his professional training, to try to establish facts. “I’m always asking what caused something to happen,” he says. “That is where I try to live my life, with primary sources, not secondary ones.”

While researching his smuggling book, Shattuck noted how prevalent drinking was during the early 1800s. Drinking became such a problem that the state outlawed alcohol production and sale in 1852. That left Shattuck wondering: “If prohibition was supposed to be so successful, what were people doing to get stimulants?”

The answer, Shattuck found, is that they were imbibing an astonishing amount of opiates. Vermonters didn’t get their drugs in illicit, back-alley transactions; they got them from their doctors, or from their closest general store or druggist.

Vermonters were using opium long before the spike in demand that Shattuck attributes to the state’s prohibition on alcohol. In fact, he unearthed references to opium consumption as far back as 1786, before Vermont was even a state. That year, Eben Judd, a self-proclaimed doctor, described treating others with opium and discussing with a doctor in Guildhall how to make opium from poppies.

Vermonters had a long tradition of self-medicating. Part of the reason was because many people distrusted elites of any sort, a feeling that grew out of the anti-Masonry movement, which started in the late 1820s.


Another effect of that distrust was that Vermonters resisted creating a system for granting medical licenses. Requiring that doctors first graduate from a medical college in order to practice smacked of elitism to some, so for decades Vermont’s Legislature only sporadically monitored who could practice medicine. When it did require that doctors obtain licenses, the requirements were minimal. Making matters worse, the state also had several “diploma mills,” in Rutland, Bennington, Newbury and Newfane, churning out untrained men passing themselves off as doctors.

Even many trained doctors were ignorant of the dangers posed by opiates. Doctors relied so heavily on opium-based medicines to treat a range of maladies that nationally an estimated 16 percent became addicts themselves. The pharmaceutical industry and pharmacists were also unregulated and had a perverse financial incentive to push drugs that guaranteed return customers, who were literally addicted to the products.

The state Legislature could have remedied these problems with some careful regulation. But when doctors like Grinnell pointed out the seriousness of the opiate problem, the Legislature turned a deaf ear. Lawmakers were myopically focused on alcohol prohibition as the way to treat society’s addiction problems, and didn’t take the opiate crisis seriously, Shattuck says.

Doctors relied on opium and opium-based drugs because of their obvious effectiveness. Unlike most of the other treatments at their disposal, a dose of opium would quickly quiet a suffering or agitated patient. As a result, no one questioned the drug’s inclusion in countless patent medicines.

Vermonters didn’t have to rely on doctors to provide them with opiates. They could simply buy them at their local general store or druggist. Untrained clerks sold opium to the public in various products, such as Allen’s Lung Balsam, Dr. Bull’s Cough Syrup, Godfrey’s Cordial, Perry Davis’ Pain Killer, Lee’s Bilious Pills, Bateman’s Pectoral Drops, Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup or Dr. Moore’s Essence of Life. No prescription needed.

The Vermont Pharmaceutical Association tried to institute a mandatory prescription system, but doctors resisted. When doctors did write prescriptions, some used a code only decipherable by a favored druggist, who would kick back money to the doctor.

Vermonters also made the drugs. The state was home to one of the nation’s largest patent medicine manufacturers, Wells, Richardson & Co. of Burlington, which employed 200 people. Shattuck found numerous medicines containing opium listed in 23 pages of the company’s 1878 catalog.

Though some Vermonters tried their hand at growing poppies, most of the opium in the state originated in Asia Minor and the subcontinent.

“The problem was that drugs were so readily available and some doctors didn’t really understand the addiction that they were responsible for,” says Shattuck.

But some doctors saw the dangers of the powerful and highly addictive drug. In 1890, Elliot Wardsworth Shipman of Vergennes wrote that he had witnessed “five victims of this habit” enter his local drugstore and “purchase what opium and morphine they desired, within less than two hours time and no questions were asked.”

Shipman related horrible examples of malpractice, including a doctor who, when he grew tired of a young woman’s physical complaints, told her to buy a hypodermic needle and dose herself with morphine when she felt the need.

Indeed, the development of the hypodermic in mid-1800s exacerbated Vermonters’ habit of self-medicating with opiates, as it gave addicts a more efficient way to take the drugs.

By the late 1800s, some in the state pharmaceutical industry were becoming concerned by the prevalence of opium addiction. At the annual meeting of the Vermont State Pharmaceutical Association in 1898, Dr. J.C.F. With said that all druggists were familiar with opium and morphine users who “under one pretext or another” ask for their drug of choice. “I have seen a man get from a druggist an eight-ounce bottle of laudanum (opium mixed in alcohol), tear the wrapper off and deliberately drink half the contents,” he said.

With said he feared the man was attempting suicide, but then the man just wandered off as if this were a regular habit.

Some Vermonters began offering treatments for people addicted to opiates, alcohol and tobacco. In 1892, the Keeley Institute in Montpelier started offering three-week sessions for alcoholics. Four-week sessions were prescribed for morphine addicts.

By the early 1900s, as other states passed laws restricting opiate use, Vermont gained a reputation regionally for its lax or nonexistent laws. Addicts from neighboring states began visiting the state to buy their drugs. The Vermont Legislature finally acted to tighten state law in 1915, when it passed “An Act to Regulate the Sale of Opium, Morphine and other Narcotic Drugs.”

A century later, the state is still wrestling with how best to protect its citizens from the dangers of addictive drugs.

In the vein...

Offline Dhedmo

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Re: its not like its unique to the modern era, 19th c addiction in Vermont
« Reply #1 on: November 05, 2015, 02:14:23 PM »
Great post, Clinton. Repped.

Offline makita

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Re: its not like its unique to the modern era, 19th c addiction in Vermont
« Reply #2 on: November 05, 2015, 03:21:35 PM »
I read some article about some city (I forget where) that said their overdose numbers had tripled since 2010, to 450.  Unprecedented epidemic, yadda yadda.

So I looked up what the OD numbers were in the 90s.  650.

We have a very short memory in this culture, esp. when a moral panic is involved. 
something something drug war, social justice blah blah

Offline corlene

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Re: its not like its unique to the modern era, 19th c addiction in Vermont
« Reply #3 on: November 05, 2015, 10:41:59 PM »
Over dose deaths have risen in the land of pill mills, everyone thst was on pills for the most part is now doin heroin, and alot of that is now laced with fentanyl.

Offline alpha

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Re: its not like its unique to the modern era, 19th c addiction in Vermont
« Reply #4 on: November 06, 2015, 05:26:54 AM »
Just giving respect to Clinton for all the great news articles! Keep em coming!
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Offline Narkotikon

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Re: its not like its unique to the modern era, 19th c addiction in Vermont
« Reply #5 on: November 08, 2015, 10:58:05 AM »
Interesting article. 

Another point to mention is that some people used opium and other opiates in the 19th century specifically b/c alcohol was deemed inappropriate.  Legal, OTC patent medicines were an acceptable alternative to demon liquor. 

Women especially turned to opiates, as it was considered improper for women to imbibe.  Women weren't socially, or even legally, allowed to patronize bars and other drinking establishments. 

This would have been especially true in a place like Vermont, with its focus on alcohol prohibition. 

Opium, laudanum, morphine, etc. were also cheaper than alcohol, meaning opiates were within the reach of even the poorest people. 

If anything, we should go back to how things were, not toward a more repressive approach. 
« Last Edit: November 08, 2015, 11:00:07 AM by Narkotikon »
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Offline neighbor

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Re: its not like its unique to the modern era, 19th c addiction in Vermont
« Reply #6 on: November 08, 2015, 02:47:24 PM »
man Im glad to see you posting, I spent hours reading the articles youd post while I was in WD many times

great article, only thing that seemed strange is how the author states that alcohol and opium are stimulants.

« Last Edit: November 08, 2015, 02:55:05 PM by neighbor »
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