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Vermont Senate Approves Bill To Open Safe Drug Consumption Site In Burlington, Sending Amended Proposal Back To House



Vermont’s Senate has passed a bill to legalize and fund a facility in Burlington where people could use currently prohibited substances in a medically supervised environment—part of a pilot program aimed at quelling the ongoing epidemic of drug-related deaths.

Senate lawmakers approved the bill, H.72, on a voice vote on Thursday, with no discussion of the proposal.

A day earlier on the Senate floor, however, Sen. Ginny Lyons (D) described the measure as an evidence-based approach to reducing opioid-related deaths in the state.

“As long as there’s demand for addictive substances, these problems will persist,” she told colleagues. “H.72 will allow for the establishment of a safe haven for those with addiction at overdose protection centers.”

“I know that many of you in this body think of this as a controversial topic, and I had been with you for a long time,” Lyons continued. “I had my reservations as this issue was discussed over the past seven years. And now we have a robust body of research having multiple positive effects of overdose prevention centers and no negative ones. It’s time for us to move forward.”

The House of Representatives approved an earlier version of the measure in January, but it’s since seen significant revisions in the Senate. The amended bill now returns to the House for lawmakers there either to sign off on the changes or send the legislation to a bicameral conference committee.


As passed by the House, the legislation would have created two overdose prevention centers (OPCs) in undeclared parts of the state, with $2 million set aside in funding for the facilities, plus another $300,000 to study the study the impact of the pilot project.

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.

The change also cut funding for the program to $1.1 million for the single-site program, though it retained the full $300,000 that was in the House-passed bill to study the impact of the pilot project.

Another change made in the Senate Appropriations Committee last week amended the bill to remove a separate section that would have put $1.45 million toward syringe service programs in the state for harm reduction and HIV/AIDS prevention.

The Senate version of the bill also now includes a requirement that the facility provide drug-checking services, and it adds 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.

It would require the OPC to staff the Burlington facility with 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.

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

If it becomes law, Vermont would join Rhode Island and Minnesota in authorizing the facilities, where people can use illicit drugs with medical professionals present and be connected to various support services, including treatment.

Even if the overdose prevention center legislation passes the Senate this session, it still faces a possible veto from the governor.

“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,” the governor said of the current measure at the time it passed the House earlier this year.

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.”

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 last month, Vermont’s Senate passed a measure that would establish a working group to study whether and how to allow therapeutic access to psychedelics in the state. If the bill is enacted, a report from the working group would be due to the legislature in November with recommendations on how to regulate the substances. As originally introduced, that bill would have also legalized use and possession of psilocybin, but lawmakers on the Senate Health and Welfare Committee nixed that section last week 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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