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Vermont Lawmakers Send Bill To Legalize And Fund Safe Drug Consumption Site To Governor’s Desk



Lawmakers in Vermont have passed legislation to legalize and fund a Burlington facility where people could use currently prohibited substances in a medically supervised environment—part of a pilot program aimed at quelling the state’s ongoing epidemic of drug-related deaths. The measure now heads to the desk of Gov. Phil Scott (R), who vetoed an earlier 2022 measure that would have created a task force to study such sites.

The House of Representatives signed off on Senate-made changes to the bill, H.72, in a voice vote on Tuesday. The Senate approved the measure after making the changes last week.

House lawmakers approved a previous version of the bill in January, as Rep. Theresa Wood (D) reminded colleagues ahead of Tuesday’s floor vote.

“Members may have forgotten about this bill,” she joked. “It was one of the very first ones we passed back in January.”

If enacted, the legislation would create an overdose prevention centers (OPC) Burlington, with $1.1 million set aside in funding plus another $300,000 to study the study the impact of the pilot project. The OPC 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.

“The Vermont Department of Health has a public health campaign that tells all people with substance use disorder to never use alone, because doing so can be extremely dangerous,” Wood told House colleagues. “Between 2012 and 2023, there were over 1,500 Vermonters that died. The vast majority of them did not have a bystander. This is a shocking loss of lives—lives that were our friends, our family members, our community members and so many Vermonters, all of whom deserved a chance to live and heal.”

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 includes 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.

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.

Earlier this year, the governor said he’s still skeptical of this session’s proposal. “I just don’t think that a government entity should be in the business of enabling those who are addicted to these drugs that are illegal,” he said in January, as the measure passed out of the House in its earlier form.

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.”

Some who opposed the bill during Tuesday’s House session said they felt it was premature, as the sites are not federally approved.

“If this site does get established in Burlington, you can be assured that I may be the first one going on up there saying, ‘How can I help?'” said Rep. Eric McGuire, a program manager at a family services center in Rutland who provides volunteer ministerial services at the Vermont Department of Corrections. “But this is not a proven practice at this time in our country.”

“I believe in cutting edge approaches to harm reduction as a practitioner in our field,” McGuire said, but he added that “we have an obligation and a duty as practitioners to follow the models as outlined, whether it’s the ethical standards and the moral standards,” arguing that OPCs have not been recognized by the American Society of Addiction Medicine, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) or the National Institutes of Health.

“My fear is this is going to result in unintended consequences that could damage anything moving any further,” he said.

Rep. Casey Toof (R) said he agreed with McGuire’s criticism but also opposed using money from the state’s opioid settlement fund to pay for a single site in Burlington.

“I’m just looking at the $1.1 million that we’re going to allocate to one municipality that the rest of the state’s gonna have to pick up and pay for,” he said. “I don’t see my constituents using the services that are provided in these injection booths.”

“This is a pilot project,” responded Wood. “I want to point out that this is a pilot project, very much for us to learn from this experience. And the city of Burlington is equipped—and has requested, frankly, the ability to be a pilot project for this.”

She said the experiment could “assist in saving lives in the city of Burlington and assist our state in understanding better what this could mean for harm reduction.”

As passed by the House earlier this year, the legislation 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, the 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.

Separately on Tuesday, a Vermont’s Senate committee endorsed a small change to a measure that would establish a working group to study whether and how to allow therapeutic access to psychedelics, a proposal that next heads to the chamber floor. If that bill becomes law, a report from the working group would be due to the legislature in November with recommendations on how to regulate the substances.

The change approved in committee would direct the Vermont Psychological Association to collaborate with the state Department of Health to help staff and provide technical assistance to body.

As originally introduced, that bill, S.114, would have also legalized use and possession of psilocybin, but lawmakers on the Senate Health and Welfare Committee nixed that section to focus instead on the working group.

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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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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