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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Pharmacist Says Syringes Too Easy To Get In Vermont

Kreg Steppe/ Flickr
Some pharmacists say Vermont's lack of regulations for buying syringes that can be used by addicts has added to the opiate problem.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has called attention in recent weeks to what he calls an epidemic of heroin and prescription drug addiction.

The governor has outlined plans to expand treatment. But some pharmacists say the state’s lack of regulations for buying syringes that can be used by addicts has added to the problem.  

Diabetics or allergy patients who need syringes usually get a prescription for them, and they’re nearly always paid for with private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid.

Long time Vermont pharmacist Marty Irons says it’s the people buying syringes with cash, often in large quantities, that he worries about, because he knows most will be used to inject drugs.

“It is a red flag,” says Irons. “Quite often, the buyers [are] young, they’re uneducated; some of them appear to be users."

Irons says others “may be straw buyers, buying for other folks, buying so that they can trade their syringes for other drugs other than something injectable.”

Several Vermont pharmacies contacted for this story say they no longer sell syringes without a prescription because it became an issue. 

But Irons says that also creates problems because Vermont doesn’t have a state-wide needle exchange program.  While there are  state funded syringe exchange programs in Burlington, St Johnsbury and White River Junction, Irons says in other parts of the state pharmacies are one of the few places drug users can get clean syringes. “Pharmacists have very mixed emotions about this,” says Irons. 

"We know that people are using this quite often to inject illicit drugs. At the same time we know that without clean syringes we would see our HIV rate spike and we would see all sorts of other problems that go along with dirty syringes." - Pharmacist Marty Irons

Irons, a board member with the Vermont Pharmacists Association, believes thousands of non-prescription syringes are sold in Vermont every day. And he believes many end up being used as currency in the cross state drug trade. He says some simple regulations would help curb that, such as not allowing anyone under 18 to buy syringes without a prescription and limiting the number sold at any one time to 10.  

He says that’s a policy that exists in both New York and New Hampshire. “Using 10 as a guideline,” says Irons, “would change it from wholesaling to personal use.”

Irons says he brought his concerns to Vermont Health Commissioner Harry Chen last fall but was told the matter is out of the department’s jurisdiction.

Deputy Health Commissioner Tracy Dolan says that while the department doesn't have regulatory authority over syringe sales, Vermont health officials believe making clean syringes available is good public health policy.

Ronald Klein, director of Vermont’s Board of Pharmacy, says for it to put any regulations in place on syringe sales, the board would need enabling legislation from lawmakers.

James Marmar is a pharmacist in Woodstock and executive director of the Vermont Pharmacists Association. His 26-year-old son, Zachary, died of heroin addiction in 2009, and he says he understands all too well what’s at stake. But Marmar doesn’t think more regulation is the answer.

“I think they should leave it to the pharmacists to figure it out,” Marmar says. “I personally would never sell five boxes to someone. It would be very rare for someone in my community to ask for a box of 100, but obviously in other communities it’s a very common practice. But I would still say it’s up to the pharmacist. I would not try to legislate in this area.”

While pharmacists may disagree on the need for regulations, many say they’d like to see more information given out with non-prescription syringe purchases about how to properly dispose of the needles and where to find help to break the addiction cycle.

This story was updated Feb. 3 after VPR received information from state health officials that there are syringe exchange programs operating in Burlington, St. Johnsbury and White River Junction, which are partially funded by the State Health Department.

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