Here in Vermont maple syrup is more than just a business. It's part of our culture, an image we like to portray to the rest of the world (especially tourists) of a bucolic utopia where the traditional values of family and hard work are passed down through the generations, and all the negative trappings of big-city life are non-existent.
So when Rolling Stone magazine in its latest issue printed a photo tainting that iconic image it created quite an outrage here. The photo is of a maple syrup can with a drawing of a Paul Bunyan-type character sitting on a stump in the snow-covered woods, an ax on the ground and a needle in his arm, with the words "State of Vermont -- Pure Heroin" written above.
"It's sad for the people who have lived their lives and generations making maple syrup. That's really going to do a hard thing to them," one Vermonter told Burlington-based WCAX-TV.
"That's really kind of insulting to Vermont actually," said another. "I take offense to it, being born and raised here."
It's understanding how this image could be jarring to Vermonters, but before we crucify Rolling Stone for such blasphemy we need to step back and consider the intent behind the photo. It's meant to be shocking, to draw us out of our complacency, to compel us to read the story and take an honest look at the growing heroin epidemic here in Vermont and across the country.
The article that accompanies the photo provides a detailed account of how this epidemic started across the country, and in Vermont in particular, and how it has expanded and flourished over the past decade. It tells the personal story of an addict who grew up enjoying the simple pleasures of riding horses and how her life spiraled out of control with that first OxyContin pill. As the article notes, 77 percent of addicts say they started using heroin after trying FDA-approved painkillers like OxyContin.
The point is clear: Heroin is no longer just an inner-city problem. As Rolling Stone notes, the heroin epidemic is "an urban scourge freakishly resurfacing in the least likely of rural sanctuaries." Even Vermont is not immune.
Will Holden, writing for Vermont-based LezGetReal.com, offers a similar assessment of the Rolling Stone article.
"Honestly, I think it did a great job addressing a major issue with our state ... Drugs are a major problem in our community, and they have been for a long time now," Holden wrote. "Maybe this will help us realize that the problem doesn't solely stem from those traveling from the city, but is deeply-rooted here at home.
"We need to stop looking at Norman Rockwell paintings as though they were a window into what Vermont is or should be, and start looking around us in the year 2014. Vermont will never be a Norman Rockwell painting, and it shouldn't strive to be one either. We need to progress, we need to clean up our community and that can only happen after we take a good long look at ourselves."
Citing Gov. Peter Shumlin's State of the State address in January, in which he brought the heroin problem to the forefront, Rolling Stone notes that since 2000 Vermont has seen an eight-fold increase in those seeking treatment for opiate use, with an almost 40 percent spike in the past year for heroin alone. Deaths from overdoses in 2013 nearly doubled from 2012, property crimes and home invasions are on the rise, and close to 80 percent of the state's inmates are either addicted or in prison because of their addiction. An estimated $2 million worth of opiates are now being trafficked into Vermont each week -- a staggering amount for a state that, with only 626,000 residents, is the second-least-populated in the country, after Wyoming, Rolling Stone notes.
The magazine also points out, however, that Vermont is not unique in this problem. It highlights heroin problems in Pennsylvania, Michigan, northern Kentucky, central Florida, western Massachusetts, northwestern Indiana, Ohio, Delaware and Wisconsin.
What is unique about Vermont, however, is the new approach that Shumlin is advocating -- to treat addiction as a disease that requires bolstering treatment infrastructures instead of increasing the prison population. It's an approach that is gaining acceptance nationally.
By March, the magazine says, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holden was advocating Shumlin's approach on a national stage, deeming heroin "an urgent public-health crisis" and calling for reduced mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug charges, and "making it clear that the situation in Vermont is all the more disturbing and relevant when understood not as an anomaly but as a microcosm of a pandemic that extends far beyond its bucolic borders."
If this new approach proves successful then Vermont will be known not as the heroin capital of rural America but as a progressive state that was able to find a solution which has eluded so many others for far too long.