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State of Alarm

4:05 PM, Jan 9, 2014 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s State of the Union speech in which he declared a “War on Poverty.” There was, and continues to be, much discussion and debate over how well that effort has gone.  Are we better off now than we were 50 years ago?  The country is materially  richer and vastly so. But the poor are undeniably still with us and, perhaps, more impoverished than ever.  Though not necessarily in a material sense.

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Yesterday, Governor Peter Shumlin of Vermont delivered his “State of the State” address and it was not, emphatically, typical of this sort of speech. It did not take the conventional, laundry list form with the governor citing the number of new classrooms built, miles of highway improved, meals on wheels programs funded and so forth. It was, essentially, a one-topic speech. On heroin.

It was a tough speech. Governor Shumlin made his case that Vermont is in the grip of “a full-blown heroin crisis.”  And he did the numbers. An increase in treatment for addiction of some 770 percent since 2000. A 40 percent increase in just the last year. Twice as many federal drug indictments against dealers in the state over the last two years. Five times the number in 2010. A doubling in the number of deaths by overdose in the last year. A doubling, also, in spending in the last nine years on prisons where 80 percent of those serving time area either addicted there because of their addiction.

It is unlikely that anyone in the state was surprised by any of this.  The heroin problem (or “crisis,” if you will) is no secret. (I wrote about it, in this magazine, recently.) It has changed the way people in Vermont live. It makes the state less attractive to the kind of people it needs to attract – young entrepreneurs – and more seductive to the sort it would like to keep out – dealers and addicts. In previously serene and secure small villages, people now lock their doors. In the larger towns, they are learning to cope with the presence of drug houses and drive-by shootings in the neighborhood. All the consequences, in short, that one would expect from a heroin plague and Vermont’s unwanted status as the state with the worst (or, possibly, second worst) heroin problem in the nation.

Leading one to ask: why?

Vermont is not the Harlem of Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land.  Or is it?

Certainly Vermont proves empirically and conclusively that heroin does not discriminate by race. Vermont is the whitest state in the union. It is also rural, agricultural, full of good institutions of higher learning, and spends more per pupil on K-12 education than just about any jurisdiction in the country. But the kids are turning, increasingly, to heroin, the drug of despair and demoralization.

So, again: why?

It is not permitted to blame the addicts. They, by the conventional wisdom, are the victims.  But of what?  

In his address, Governor Shumlin called it a disease, which is the accepted formulation.  "We must,” he said, "do for this disease what we do for cancer, diabetes, heart, and other chronic illness: first, aim for prevention, and then eradicate any disease that develops with aggressive treatment.”

There is, unquestionably, a medical component to addiction.  Still …

A lot of the resemblance of addiction to other diseases is metaphorical. And you can push metaphors only so far. William F. Buckley Jr. went with the heroin addiction-as-disease metaphor when he was running to be mayor of New York in 1965. If it is a disease, he reasoned, then the addicts are the carriers – its Typhoid Marys – and they need to be quarantined.  Which gave Buckley’s opponents and enemies the opportunity to charge him with advocating concentration camps for addicts.

If addiction is a disease, then some questions logically follow.  Namely, what are the conditions in which it breeds. What, metaphorically, is the equivalent of lack of sanitation for cholera?  Or rats for plague?  And to what degree can the victims’ own habits be blamed for their condition.  As obesity is for type-2 diabetes?

But this, really, is not a very productive a line of thought or argument. The best argument for the disease metaphor is that it takes the stigma off addiction and makes understanding and treatment possible and effective.  By now, the addict is no longer stigmatized in our culture and, indeed, far from it.  The world of entertainment has made role models out of some addicts.

Again, still …

Governor Shumlin did not talk of sin or, even, individual weakness and failure in his speech. Nor, probably, should he have.  He stuck to what government can and should do. Treatment. Education. Enforcement. But it might be good for the state of Vermont if it were to recognize, as it comes to grips with the heroin problem, the work and the lasting achievement of Bill Wilson, a Vermonter and the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.  No program of any kind has done more to help and redeem addicts. And AA is decidedly not a value-free way of thinking.  

When I was researching my article on heroin in Vermont, I sat in on several meetings of professionals who were working with addicts in a rehab program. During one of those meetings, one of the women at the table looked at me and said, “Do you know what the real problem here is?”

“No,” I said, expecting to hear something about insufficient funding or lack of understanding.

“We’re enabling these people,” she said.  Then she went on, with help from others around the table, to list some of the state and federal programs that are available to the addicts she deals with.

Many of those programs are the spawn of the “War on Poverty.” It is too easy to say that the welfare state is the cause of the addiction explosion. Just as it is too easy to say that people mainline heroin because they have a disease and consider the matter settled. 

It is an evasion to say that there is no component of self-reliance and personal responsibility in the mix. And it is legitimate to wonder if the War on Poverty and the many programs that followed from it might not – to continue with the disease metaphor – have lowered many vulnerable people’s resistance to the disease of addiction.

Because what has happened to Vermont didn’t just happen.

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