Rep. Sandy Haas (P-Rochester), the committee's vice chair and a supporter of H.162, said she considers the bill "just [another] tool in the toolbox for addressing the opioid crisis."
"In all aspects, this is a bill about keeping people alive," she said. "Anybody who's using buprenorphine, however it's obtained, is a person who is not using fentanyl that day."
In recent years, public policies in Vermont have gradually shifted to address the opioid crisis as a health concern rather than strictly a law enforcement issue. In 2018, Chittenden County's top prosecutor, Sarah George, announced that her office would no longer prosecute people for possession of black-market buprenorphine, noting that formulations of the drug "are intended to be life-saving."
Burlington officials have since credited the policy change, along with other strategies, with helping to halve the county's opioid deaths — bucking a statewide trend.
But possession of the opioid medication "bupe," as it is often called, remains illegal without a prescription under state law.
Lawmakers have taken lengthy testimony on the issue since it first came up last session. Some people questioned whether decriminalizing bupe would disincentive people from seeking professional help, while supporters of the bill argue that it would allow people to medicate long enough to get into treatment.
Decriminalizing bupe would not only protect people who need the drug, but also their family members, she told the committee. “People who could never in a million years imagine illegally buying a medication [choose to] because they worry without it, their son or daughter could relapse after a period of sobriety,” she said.
The committee spent much of its time debating the amount of buprenorphine people would be allowed to legally possess. The version of the bill that passed through the House Judiciary Committee last year would have decriminalized the possession of up to 3.6 grams, too much for some lawmakers to stomach.
To address those concerns, Haas initially proposed limiting the amount to 30 days' worth. But she further capped the amount Wednesday, proposing to decriminalize a supply of roughly two weeks. She said that amount better aligns with her goal of mimicking a typical prescription, and she expected it would be more palatable for some lawmakers.
Possession of the decriminalized amount would be legal only for those 21 and older, the committee decided Wednesday, an age that is in line with Vermont's regulations for alcohol and marijuana. Someone younger than 21 in possession of the the decriminalized amount would be referred to a court diversion program, while anyone found with more than that could still be charged with a misdemeanor.
Brenda Siegel, a Democratic lieutenant governor candidate who lost her nephew to an overdose and has advocated for the decriminalization of buprenorphine, attended Wednesday's vote. She commended the committee for understanding that substance use disorder should be treated as a medical issue. The bill, she said, "will save lives."
"We are starting, as a state at least, to understand harm reduction in a different way than we have in the past," Siegel said.
"It's not just about clean needle exchanges. It's not just about fentanyl testing strips," she continued. "It's about how we let human beings who are struggling with this disease know that they are important enough to live through it."