- Derek Brouwer ©️ Seven Days
- A needle left on a Burlington street
Burlington city councilors will consider a resolution seeking to declare the drug crisis as the top public health issue facing the city.
The three-member Public Safety Committee was set to consider the measure on Thursday night.
Related Vermont's Relapse: Efforts to Address Opioid Addiction Were Starting to Work. Then Potent New Street Drugs Arrived.
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.
“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.
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."
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.