• Pouring it on
    April 05,2014

    That flannel-shirted woodsman on the syrup can in the Rolling Stone illustration was in poor taste, according to some readers. That the bearded fellow is using a syringe to shoot up as he sits on a tree stump is, indeed, a startling image.

    But that’s the point of the long article carried by Rolling Stone in its April 10 issue: that the image cherished by many people of Vermont as a rural sanctuary needs to be altered. If heroin and maple syrup are at odds, that is an idea Vermonters are getting used to.

    And that is why Gov. Peter Shumlin, Health Commissioner Harry Chen and the mayors of Barre and Rutland gathered in Barre on Tuesday to make an emergency announcement about the regulation of a potent new opiate called Zohydro. Chen said the state would put in place strict new guidelines to ensure that abuse of the drug is minimized. Mayors Christopher Louras of Rutland and Thomas Lauzon of Barre were there to endorse Chen’s announcement.

    As for Rolling Stone, the article lays out for a nationwide readership a story with which Vermonters have become all too familiar. It is about young people who are introduced to the appeal of opiates by friends who have learned how to get high from the painkillers stolen from a grandparent’s medicine cabinet or bought on the street. As authorities have cracked down on the abuse of prescription drugs, the price of the drugs has risen, and they have become more scarce. Seeing a market opportunity, sellers of heroin have provided a lower-cost alternative. The boom in the heroin trade has become a paramount concern for state government, as well as local law enforcement and communities around the state.

    This is a story familiar all around the country. Heroin is no longer a drug used primarily in the big cities. In rural areas where opportunity is lacking and poverty is growing, people are turning to drugs. The Rolling Stone article says that $2 million worth of opiates are being trafficked into Vermont each week. It tells the story of two young Vermont women who fell into the habit and of their struggles to put their lives together. It could have been the story of people in the fashionable neighborhoods of New York City or in the hills of Arkansas. The surprising story would be if it were not happening in Vermont.

    Prescription drugs remain a huge challenge for the medical, pharmaceutical and law enforcement professions. Prescriptions for painkillers have mushroomed in recent years — Rolling Stone reports that in 2010 enough painkillers were prescribed to keep every adult American sedated around the clock for a month. In 2009 retail pharmacies filled 257 million prescriptions for painkillers.

    That is why Chen was highly critical of the Food and Drug Administration for approving the use of Zohydro. The drug is a potent new painkiller that lacks the safeguards that prevent crushing and snorting. He said the FDA approved Zohydro though its own advisory committee voted 11-2 against it. He said he wondered if the FDA was “on the same planet” as everyone else who is trying to confront the problem of addictive painkillers.

    The paperwork and procedures necessary to prescribe and monitor Zohydro may be so burdensome that doctors are discouraged from prescribing it. At least, they will be more conscientious in making sure it is used properly.

    No one likes to think that Vermont is a place where sugarmakers are shooting up in the woods. And yet the toll of prescription drug and heroin addiction is all too real, and it is a toll being borne by regular Vermonters, the kind who might otherwise be living productive lives in the woods, on the farms, in the towns and cities of the state. It is a positive statement about Vermont that when its good qualities appeared to be imperiled, Rolling Stone thought it was worth a close examination. That close examination is driving forward an effort at all levels of the community to do something about it.

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