Vermont House Passes Bill To Legalize And Fund Safe Drug Consumption Sites Over Governor’s Objection

Vermont’s House of Representatives has passed a bill to create and fund overdose prevention centers in the state, part of a pilot program aimed at quelling the ongoing epidemic of drug-related deaths. It’s another attempt by lawmakers to allow the facilities 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 the measure, H.72, is enacted into law, Vermont would join Rhode Island and Minnesota in authorizing the facilities, where people can use illicit drugs in a supervised environment and be connected to various support services, including treatment.

Led by Rep. Taylor Small (D) and 28 other co-sponsors, the bill in its current form would earmark $2 million to support the creation of two overdose prevention centers along with $300,000 to study the impacts of the program.

After adopting a number of amendments, the full House passed the measure on Thursday, advancing the proposal to the Senate.

“People around the country are acknowledging that old, stigmatizing approaches aren’t working, while evidence is clear overdose prevention centers save lives,” said Grey Gardner, senior policy council for the advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which supports the legislation.

Since 2010, Gardner noted, overdose fatalities in Vermont have climbed by nearly 500 percent.

“The priority needs to be saving lives, improving connections to care, and benefiting communities,” he said, “and that’s exactly what overdose prevention centers are proven to do.”

Among the more notable recent changes ahead of House passage, an amendment offered by Rep. Eric Maguire (R) added a local opt-in provision that would allow sites to open “only upon an affirmative vote of the legislative body of the municipality.”

Earlier House amendments to the bill doubled the funding for the sites—from $1 million to $2 million—and directed that funding to study the pilot program should come from the a state opioid abatement fund.

Even if the overdose prevention center legislation passes the Senate, where it has been referred to the Health and Welfare Committee, it still faces a possible veto from Scott.

“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 measure, according to WCAX.

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.”

Though Rhode Island and Minnesota have state laws on the books allowing safe 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 is fighting an effort to open an overdose prevention center in Philadelphia, with the Biden administration arguing that the facilities violate federal law.

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

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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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