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Vermont Governor Signals Veto Of Drug Safe Consumption Site Bill That Passed Legislature



Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R) says he’s “sure” he’ll end up vetoing a bill that would legalize and fund a Burlington facility where people could use currently prohibited drugs in a medically supervised environment, explaining that he’s “philosophically and pragmatically opposed” to the measure despite support from local leaders.

“I’m sure I’ll end up vetoing that, and we’ll see if there’s an override,” the governor said of the bill, H.72, at his weekly press conference on Wednesday. “That one is something that I am opposed to. We’ll see if they have the votes.”

Lawmakers would need a two-thirds supermajority to overcome Scott’s veto.

The proposal, which cleared the legislature with a final House vote on Tuesday, would create an overdose prevention center (OPC) in the city of Burlington, with $1.1 million in money from the state’s opioid settlement fund and another $300,000 to study the impact of the pilot project. The facility would need to have on-site professionals with training in CPR, overdose interventions, first aid and wound care, as well as medical assessments to determine the need for further emergency care.

Beyond establishing a site where people could use drugs in a medically supervised setting, the bill also now includes a Senate-added requirement that the facility provide drug-checking services, and it contains language on criminal immunity for OPC staff, property holders and others to ensure they aren’t subject to arrest or prosecution as the result of good-faith overdose prevention efforts.

If it becomes law, Vermont would join Rhode Island and Minnesota in authorizing the facilities.

In his recent comments, however, Scott argued the state should instead “go with a strategy that works,” calling for more funding for prevention, treatment and “trying to put people on a better path.”

Asked by a reporter whether he disagrees with claims from the bill’s supporters that it would help save lives, Scott replied, “Well, it may save lives, but how much are we going to lose because we didn’t get them into treatment or keep them from using in the first place with prevention.”

“Again, that’s our philosophical difference,” he continued. “I think we’re all on the same page. We want to save lives. We just have a different outlook on how to do that.”

Watch Scott’s comments, around 24:34 into the video below:

House lawmakers approved a previous version of the bill in January, and the Senate last week amended and approved the measure. On Tuesday, the House of Representatives signed off on the Senate-made changes, teeing up the proposal to be transmitted Scott’s office.

Sponsored by Rep. Taylor Small (P/D) and 28 House colleagues, the bill is another attempt by lawmakers to allow overdose prevention centers following Scott’s veto of a 2022 measure that would have established a task force to create a plan to open the sites.

Though he hadn’t explicitly indicated earlier this session that he intended to veto the bill, Gov. Scott said in January, after it passed the House, that he didn’t believe “that a government entity should be in the business of enabling those who are addicted to these drugs that are illegal.”

Scott wrote in his 2022 veto message on the earlier legislation that “it seems counterintuitive to divert resources from proven harm reduction strategies to plan injection sites without clear data on the effectiveness of this approach.”

An earlier House-passed version of H.72 would have instead created two overdose prevention centers (OPCs) in undeclared parts of the state, with $2 million set aside in funding for the facilities. A broad amendment adopted in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee last month, however, narrowed the pilot program to a single site in the city of Burlington, where officials have expressed interest in hosting a facility.

In addition to endorsements from the current and former mayors of Burlington itself, this year’s proposal has support from advocacy groups including the Drug Policy Alliance, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, National Harm Reduction Coalition, the American Diabetes Association, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, Johnson Health Center, Broken No More, Recovery Vermont and the Vermont Association for Mental Health Addiction and Recovery.

Though Rhode Island and Minnesota have state laws on the books allowing safe drug consumption sites, New York City became the first U.S. jurisdiction to open locally sanctioned harm reduction centers in November 2021, and officials have reported positive results saving lives.

An early study published by the American Medical Association (AMA) found that the facilities had decreased the risk of overdose, steered people away from using drugs in public and provided other ancillary health services to people who use illicit substances. And separate research published by AMA late last year found that the centers have not led to increased crime despite a significant decrease in arrests.

Meanwhile the federal government has fought an effort to open an overdose prevention center in Philadelphia, with the Biden administration arguing that the facilities violate federal law. Last month, the court in that case granted the Justice Department’s motion to dismiss a challenge from organizers.

The Supreme Court rejected a request to that hear that case in October 2021.

DOJ first blocked the Philadelphia nonprofit from opening the overdose prevention center under the Trump administration. Supporters hoped the department would cede the issue under President Joe Biden, who has promoted harm reduction policies as an alternative to criminalization, but the parties could not reach an agreement to allow the facility to open despite months of “good faith” negotiations.

Congressional researchers have highlighted the “uncertainty” of the federal government’s position on such facilities, pointing out last November that lawmakers could temporarily resolve the issue by advancing an amendment modeled after the one that has allowed medical marijuana laws to be implemented without Justice Department interference.

Meanwhile, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora Volkow has tacitly endorsed the idea of authorizing safe consumption sites, arguing that evidence has effectively demonstrated that the facilities can prevent overdose deaths.

Volkow declined to say specifically what she believes should happen with the ongoing lawsuit, but she said safe consumption sites that have been the subject of research “have shown that it has saved a significant [percentage of] patients from overdosing.”

Rahul Gupta, the White House drug czar, has said the Biden administration is reviewing broader drug policy harm reduction proposals, including the authorization of supervised consumption sites, and he went so far as to suggest possible decriminalization.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) put out a pair of requests for applications in December 2021 to investigate how safe consumption sites and other harm reduction policies could help address the drug crisis.

Gupta, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), has said it’s critical to explore “any and every option” to reduce overdose deaths, which could include allowing safe consumption sites for illegal substances if the evidence supports their efficacy.

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Photo courtesy of Jernej Furman.

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Ben Adlin, a senior editor at Marijuana Moment, has been covering cannabis and other drug policy issues professionally since 2011. He was previously a senior news editor at Leafly, an associate editor at the Los Angeles Daily Journal and a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs. He lives in Washington State.


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