Lecture explores 19th century opiate use in Vermont

An author and former federal prosecutor talked about the widespread opiate addiction Vermonters had in the mid to late 19th century Oct. 20 in UVM’s Waterman Lounge.

Gary Shattuck gave his lecture as the first in a series dedicated in memory of Samuel Hand, a historian, political scientist and scholar at UVM for many years who died June 30, 2012, according to the UVM website.

“I think it’s an important unknown piece of Vermont history that needs to be told in the context of what was going on with the prohibition of alcohol,” Shattuck said.

Shattuck’s lecture was titled “Opiate Use in Vermont- The Present Reflects the Past.”

Today in Vermont, there are several hubs that provide care to Vermonters for opioid addiction, including heroin and morphine.

Henry Chen, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, submitted a report Jan. 2015 to the state legislature stating that there had been a 40 percent increase in medically assisted treatment among these hubs.

Shattuck said he was hesitant to make connections between what’s going on today and what happened back then.

“They were two very dissimilar times,” he said. “Back in the 1800’s there were essentially no laws prohibiting the purchase and use of any of these dangerous drugs and there was no licensing to speak of with regards to doctors or pharmacists for drugs.”

“And we certainly don’t have that kind of a problem going on now,” Shattuck said.

Shattuck said there does seem to be a problem with opioid addiction in Vermont today though. While it’s not the same problem as it was 100 to 15 years ago, it certainly is a problem, he said.

Richard Watts, director of the Center for Research on Vermont, which sponsored the event said there were about 125 people there.

“I’d say [it was] excellent in that Gary stuck with good content and a great crowd,” Watts said.

It was fascinating to see a story that drew on the past but also directly related to the present, Watts said.

“It’s almost a cliche to say it, but history repeats itself,” Watts said. “And there’s almost nothing that happens today that hasn’t happened in one way or another before.”

Shattuck said it was an honor to have been asked to be the first in this lecture series.

Watts said the lecture series will be an annual event.

“I’m sure we can find a speaker that’s relevant in time but that’s a little ways away,” Watts said.