DORSET — From the 18th to 20th century, alcohol, heroin, morphine and opium were used by Vermonters significantly more than any other state. Gary Shattuck spoke at the Dorset Historical Society Bley House Museum on Thursday about the raging problem with these drugs, hinting at the fact that the current opioid abuse issue is nothing new to the area.
Shattuck is a retired attorney who served 35 years as a Vermont State Police officer and prosecutor of the Vermont Assistant Attorney General. He graduated from Vermont Law School and just received a master's degree in Military History with a Revolutionary War concentration. Shattuck is the author of "Artful and Designing Men: The Trials of Job Shattuck and the Regulation of 1786 to 1787," "Insurrection, Corruption and Murder in Early Vermont: Life on the Wild Northern Frontier," and "Opium Eating in Vermont: A Crying Evil of the Day."
"Vermont has a rich history with the use of stimulants," Shattuck explained. "Look at the temperance and prohibition literature in the 19th century, you'll see continual references to three substances: To alcohol, they call them the drunkers; to tobacco, they call them the tobacco chewers; and opium, they call them opium chewers. These are the three substances that people were using at the time. You can't understand opium without understanding alcohol at the same time."
In 1828 the Vermont Temperance Society was formed and by the 1850s there was a ban on the licensing and manufacturing of alcohol, according to the Vermont Court Records between 1794 and 1945. Because of the state's early adoption of prohibition in 1852, Shattuck emphasized that the increased use of distilled liquor and aforementioned drugs increased.
There was little evidence, until now, of any addiction to opium in the early 19th century, due to the fact that it was the drug of choice for medical professionals. It aided fevers, alcohol withdrawal and people who were deranged, or had difficulty adapting to changing times.
While the focus was on the violent behavior of those consuming distilled liquor, those chewing on opium quietly developed an addiction. People grew it themselves or obtained imports from Turkey and India.
The problem with the medical professionals was that they started self-medicating or created a relaxed relationship with women, who felt comfortable venting about their relationship issues, that the drug was much easier to obtain.
Due to opium's unaltered and natural state, authorities targeted man-made substances more so, such as distilled spirits, morphine and heroin.
"The question I have is why did the temperance movement not deal with opium in the 1820s and never deal with it virtually for the entire century?" Shattuck said. "The distinction that comes to mind is that they were concerned with distilled spirits, those things that have undergone a man-made process. They weren't concerned with opium, but they did become concerned with morphine and heroin later on with the introduction with the hypodermic needle – the introduction of a man-made product."
He added that the Vermont Legislature didn't deal with drugs at all during the 19th century. For example, in the 1894 laws there were 23 pages and 111 statutes regarding alcohol and only half a page discussed drug use, prohibiting its function similar to that of anesthesia so it couldn't be adulterated or used as poison.
In 1898, an estimated 565,000 pounds of drugs per year were arriving in United States. The usage rates nationally amounted to 12 grains or two aspirin per capita and grew to 10 aspirin shortly after. In 1842 there were .72 addicts per thousand people, amounting to 200 addicts in Vermont, and by the 1890s it increased to 4.59 per thousand and over 1,500 addicts. Nationally there were roughly 200 to 250 addicts at the time.
With the rise of medical societies and medical professional training, a question rose about whether to trust doctors or herbalists because by the 1900s, 16 percent of doctors were addicted to opium, according to Shattuck.
"A doctor's prescribing you to take distilled spirits alcohol with opium at certain times during the day" was a practice known as "dram drinking," Shattuck said. "People who are paying attention to the news today, Dr. Harry Chen in Burlington is acknowledging the doctors' complicity in the over prescribing of opium or invoking controls in some way so that it can be done," he said.
In 1896 Dr. Elder Cummings wrote about opium's uses and abuses and blamed doctors for nine out of 10 addiction cases.
It wasn't until 1900 that Dr. Ashbel Grinnell, a University of Vermont researcher and medical school dean, sought druggists' monthly sales. At first, he thought he retrieved their yearly sales because of how high the numbers were, but they were accurate. The results indicated that 3,300,000 doses of opium were sold each month, which equates to one and one half doses to each man and woman for an entire year.
The first drug law was passed in 1915 and a century later, Governor Peter Shumlin dedicated his State of the State Address to the heroin and opiate drug addiction that darkens "every corner of our state."
"Who's using? There's a lot of secrecy going on," Shattuck said. "There's more here than just medicinal use. It's a silent habit. People will seek stimulants regardless."
—Makayla-Courtney McGeeney can be reached at (802)-447-7567, ext. 118.