Burlington Council Moves to Declare the Drug Crisis a Top Priority | Crime | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Burlington Council Moves to Declare the Drug Crisis a Top Priority


Published September 7, 2023 at 2:58 p.m.

A needle left on a Burlington street - DEREK BROUWER ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Derek Brouwer ©️ Seven Days
  • A needle left on a Burlington street
Editor’s note: Shortly after this story was published, the city posted a new version of the resolution. This story was updated at 6:51 p.m. to reflect the changes.

Burlington city councilors will consider a resolution seeking to declare the drug crisis as the top public health issue facing the city.

"Burlingtonians continue to express concern about the wellbeing of community members, public drug use, discarded syringes, and general discomfort at the level of despair we are seeing," the resolution reads.

The measure, up for consideration in a bipartisan subcommittee, is almost entirely symbolic. It calls for two city-hosted public forums about the crisis and for the council to make the topic a standing item on its agendas. Otherwise, the resolution proposes no new initiatives.

It instead reaffirms the council’s support for harm reduction strategies such as overdose prevention sites and drug checking services. And it calls on the state to join the city in responding to the crisis with a sense of urgency.

The three-member Public Safety Committee was set to consider the measure on Thursday night.
Burlington's drug problem has no doubt worsened in recent years, a symptom of a changed drug supply that has made addiction deadlier and more disruptive.

Police responded to more than 300 overdose calls during the first eight months of this year compared to 252 through all of 2022. The trajectory has only worsened this month: On Thursday, Burlington police announced that they had responded to 11 overdose incidents within the past 24 hours.

“We want to remind neighbors of the prevalence of fentanyl and the severe impact it has on users,” the department said in a press release.

The increased drug activity has contributed to crime. Thefts, many carried out by people addicted to drugs, have risen sharply. And some shootings have been linked to the trade.

An initial draft of the committee's resolution described the drug crisis as Burlington’s top "public safety" priority and called for more aggressive enforcement against drug activity. It specifically urged the city to look for new ways to hold drug dealers responsible, along with landlords who knowingly allow the drug trade on their properties.

“There are open air markets for drugs in some parts of the city,” Councilor Melo Grant (P-Central District), a member of the Public Safety Committee, said in an interview Wednesday evening.

She said she supports harm reduction strategies such as overdose prevention sites but feels they should be paired with enforcement measures, such as arresting drug dealers.

"We cannot deny it's a public safety issue," she said of the drug crisis.

The committee’s agenda was updated on Thursday afternoon with a new version of the resolution that lost all references to drug dealing and landlords and instead framed the conversation in public health terms.

That version, drafted by Mayor Miro Weinberger and Councilor Joe Magee (P-Ward 3), said the city has vigorously advocated for harm reduction strategies but has found the state to be a lacking partner, despite the growing death toll.

"By every indication, we will lose a record number of Vermonters to accidental drug overdose in 2023," the updated version reads.
The resolution now calls on the Vermont Department of Health to more quickly disperse the state's share of financial settlements with opioid manufacturers, which the city hopes to spend on “new and innovative tools” to support people struggling with addiction.

In a statement to Seven Days on Thursday evening, a spokesperson for Weinberger sought to explain why he stepped in to produce a new version of a resolution that had yet to clear even a council subcommittee.

Weinberger would "welcome" a strong message from the city council recognizing the need to hold people who repeatedly commit property crimes accountable, Samantha Sheehan wrote. She also noted the important role that law enforcement can play in combating the drug trade.

But the mayor, she wrote, felt that now was "not the time" to abandon the city’s harm-reduction approach to the drug crisis.

Sheehan added that Weinberger looks forward to working with councilors on a "balanced resolution" that acknowledges the "full and true impacts of opioids on our community."
The Public Safety Committee was expected to endorse the resolution on Thursday night. The full council would then consider the measure, likely later this month.

Grant hopes the measure will galvanize people to speak up about the situation in Burlington. That could lead to solutions, she said, and help the city convince lawmakers to send it a larger chunk of the opioid settlement money.

"We have a very short window of time to get into those committees in an organized fashion to get the money we need," Grant said.

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