The Vermont House Human Services Committee has again endorsed a bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of the opioid-addiction drug buprenorphine. The committee unanimously approved H. 225 Tuesday afternoon, giving it a path to a vote on the House floor in coming days. It would still need approval by the Senate.
"I think we’ve done a good job on this bill," said Rep. Ann Pugh (D-Burlington) said. "It will save lives."
A similar bill stalled in the committee in 2019 over concerns about how much of the drug a person would be able to possess and be exempt from criminal charges. Last year, the committee set that at a two-week therapeutic supply, or no more than 224 milligrams. The bill unanimously passed out of committee just days before the legislature evacuated the Statehouse and the Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency due to the pandemic.
This year, the committee took additional testimony, including from Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George, who has declined to prosecute misdemeanor buprenorphine and similar drug possession cases since 2018.
She did so because this class of drugs “literally block the craving for heroin” and are an integral part of medically assisted drug treatment programs, she said. While there was some skepticism about the policy, including from law enforcement, George said in the year after it took effect, overdose deaths in the county dropped by 50 percent.
"This bill is really a modest step toward recognizing the harm that criminalizing substance use has done on individuals who use drugs,” George told lawmakers. “It tells people that we care about them, that we want them to survive.”
“When given the option in the community of possessing heroin or possessing buprenorphine, we want them to — in fact we encourage them to — possess buprenorphine,” George said.
People under age 21 found with less than 224 milligrams of “bupe” would be given a ticket and referred to a drug diversion program. First offenders who fail to complete the program would face a civil fine of $300 and 30-day license suspension. Second and subsequent offenses would lead to $600 fines and up to 90-day license suspensions.
Before he became consumed by the COVID-19 response, Health Commissioner Mark Levine cautioned lawmakers against the decriminalization effort, arguing that it might make addicts less likely to participate in supervised treatment programs.
Supporters responded that recovery is different for different people, and not everyone has access to drug treatment that works for them.