Gov. Scott Vetoes Overdose-Prevention Site Bill | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice


Gov. Scott Vetoes Overdose-Prevention Site Bill


Published May 30, 2024 at 8:17 p.m.

A needle left on a Burlington street - FILE: DEREK BROUWER ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Derek Brouwer ©️ Seven Days
  • A needle left on a Burlington street
Gov. Phil Scott, as expected, vetoed a bill on Thursday that aims to reduce overdose deaths by giving people a supervised place to use illegal drugs.

H.72 instructs the Vermont Department of Health to pass rules by September governing the operation of overdose-prevention sites in the state. It also allocates $1 million in opioid settlement funds toward establishing a site, most likely in Burlington.

Both the House and Senate approved the measure by large margins, and the legislature is expected to try and override the governor's veto next month.

Scott argued in his veto message that while the sites are "well-intentioned," the funds would be better spent on proven prevention, treatment and recovery strategies.

"While it may consolidate the widespread drug use in Burlington into a smaller area within the city, it will come at the expense of the treatment and recovery needs of other communities, for whom such a model will not work," Scott wrote.

But with overdose deaths nearly quadruple what they were a decade ago, drug reform advocates say such centers are desperately needed to save the lives of people hooked on increasingly deadly drugs.

Last year, 231 people died from drug overdoses in Vermont, according to preliminary state data. That’s a 5 percent drop from the record high of 244 in 2022. That year, Vermont had the eighth-highest rate of overdose deaths in the nation, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The increase is attributable to the prevalence of powerful synthetic opioids such as fentanyl being mixed with other drugs.

Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine has said the slightly lower number of deaths last year shows harm-reduction efforts, such as the increased availability of the overdose-reversing drug Narcan, are working.

He has acknowledged that more work needs to be done but says the jury is still out on whether overdose prevention centers have been conclusively shown to help people beat their addiction.
The centers, also known as safe-injection sites, are places where people can use illicit drugs under the supervision of staff trained to prevent or reverse overdoses. There are more than 200 such sites around the world, but only two — both in New York — are operating openly in the United States.

Burlington leaders say they’re convinced a site could work in the Queen City.

“We firmly believe that investing in overdose prevention centers is not only an imperative but also a strategic decision for the well-being of our community,” Mayor Emma Mulvaney-Stanak wrote in a letter imploring Scott to sign the bill. “By providing support and resources to those in need, we can reduce opioid-related deaths and negative health outcomes and create a safer, healthier environment for all residents.”

The letter was signed by Fire Chief Michael LaChance and Police Chief Jon Murad, who had previously questioned how effective such centers can be given how often drug users tend to use fentanyl.

In an email to Seven Days on Thursday, Murad said he still has "strong reservations" about such sites and worries they are "tantamount to sanctioning drug use."

But the increase in deaths and "unconscionable" rise in nonfatal overdoses in the city — from 100 in 2020 to 430 in last year — means Burlington officials need to try harder.

"In the face of the drug-related problems our Burlington community faces, in this case it is better to try to do something rather than nothing," he said.
The New York-based Drug Policy Alliance also urged Scott to allow the bill to become law, noting that 1,500 people have died in Vermont since 2014.

The 2023 overdose death rates remained “horrific” because of the “increasingly unpredictable and toxic drug supply” making it more imperative than ever that people don’t use alone.

“Overdose deaths are preventable if a trained individual is present at the time and location of an overdose, but the vast majority of people who have died from an overdose in Vermont were alone at the time of their use and overdose,” the group wrote.

Debate on the bill was one of the most intense of the recent legislative session.

Many Democrats and Progressives recalled stories of friends and family members lost to the drug epidemic and pleaded with colleagues to back the bill. A number of Republicans argued that the bill would enable illegal drug use, send the wrong message to youths and divert funds away from proven drug-prevention strategies.
“The data is clear," Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden-Central) said in a statement after the veto. "Overdose prevention centers save lives, connect people to treatment, reduce pressures on emergency rooms and Emergency Medical Services, and reduce public drug consumption and discarded supplies in our communities."

Baruth added that Scott’s veto showed a "loss of nerve" in exploring ways to end the opioid crisis.

Legislative leaders have expressed confidence they will have the votes needed to override Scott’s veto when they return on June 17.

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