Safe Injection Site Commission Acknowledges Political Difficulties | Off Message

Safe Injection Site Commission Acknowledges Political Difficulties


Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George at a press conference Wednesday - MARK DAVIS
  • Mark Davis
  • Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George at a press conference Wednesday
Chittenden County officials on Wednesday launched an initiative to study the creation of safe drug injection sites by acknowledging the resistance the idea could face.

State's Attorney Sarah George, who created the study commission, urged skeptics to keep an open mind, and stressed that current, less controversial practices have left hundreds of Vermonters struggling with addiction.

"They don't want to be committing crimes; they want to be reliable and trustworthy," George said.

She hopes the commission makes a recommendation in the next few months on whether the county should open an injection site where street drug users would have medical supervision and be exempt from arrest, she said.

But it is unclear what would happen if commissioners recommend opening a safe injection site, as Seattle plans to do.

Rep. Selene Colburn (P-Burlington) introduced a bill in the legislature that would allow for safe injection sites, but it hasn't even received a hearing.

George said she would not be willing to take independent steps — such as declining to prosecute drug cases at a potential site — absent legislative approval.

Even if the commission's work is controversial, George said, she hopes it would spur a broader debate about new strategies to curb opiate abuse and overdose deaths.

"If we actually have this conversation and these people [the commission] tell me it's a good thing ... the legislature will start to listen to these arguments," George said.

Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo and Deputy Chief Shawn Burke are both commission members.

While del Pozo said he is open to the debate, he said he would be unlikely to support the concept unless Vermont's drug treatment backlog were eliminated and officials at a safe injection site could offer drug users immediate access to help.

"It's not unheard of for law enforcement professionals to consider these sites," del Pozo said. "[But] I would have a hard time accepting this if we could not offer treatment without delay."

Other commission members include Vermont Cares director Peter Jacobsen, Howard Center program coordinator Tom Dalton, Vermont Cares harm reduction program manager Theresa Vezina, Rapid Intervention Community Court coordinator Emmet Helrich and University of Vermont Medical Center physician Patricia Fisher.

Dalton said his agency was aware of several addicts who would utilize a safe injection site.

"We know of people who are using in unsafe settings — and people who are using alone — and would like to use in a safe setting," he said.