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Advocates push Vt. lawmakers to address mounting opioid deaths

MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - A drug overdose in downtown Burlington Thursday illustrated the urgency of a push at the Statehouse to address increasing opioid-related deaths in Vermont.

The Burlington Police responded to an overdose on Church Street just after 3 p.m. Police say the overdose reversal drug Narcan was used and crews transported the person to the UVM Medical Center. The victim is expected to be okay.

New data from the Vermont Department of Health shows 237 overdose deaths in 2022 -- the worst year for fatal overdoses yet. Those numbers are spurring new calls at the Statehouse to invest in so-called harm reduction policies, and to reduce legal penalties.

In 2018, Kate O’Neil’s sister, Madelyn, was arrested in Massachusetts for drug possession and behind bars suffered from an untreated medical condition that led to her death. “She was there as a result of this country’s failed war on drugs,” O’Neil said. She says her sister’s death and the reason she ended up behind bars in the first place were avoidable.

O’Neil was among other advocates at the Statehouse Thursday calling for a rethinking of how the state should battle drugs. “We need to open more doors instead of driving people away from services by threatening arrest, punishment stigmatization, and marginalization,” said Grey Gardner with the Drug Policy Alliance.

Different types of more potent drugs like fentanyl and Xylazine have been coming into Vermont. Just this week, a 17-year-old was arrested in Barre with nearly 400 bags of fentanyl. The Decriminalize Vermont Coalition wants to take another tack and decriminalize their use.

One proposed bill would decriminalize what’s deemed a “personal amount” of drugs. Another would eliminate civil and criminal penalties for operating or attending a overdose prevention center -- places people can take drugs under medical supervision.

“By keeping people alive and providing them the health care services in relation to the health care issue they’re dealing with, they are less likely to engage in substance use,” said Sen. Tanya Vyhovsky, D-Chittenden County.

Governor Phil Scott has vetoed similar pieces of legislation in the past, citing questions over the legality of safe sites and how people would get to and from them.

While those proposals have not been taken up for discussion this session, lawmakers say the issues are worth exploring. Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden County, says the Department of Justice under President Biden has declined to pursue charges against existing overdose prevention sites and people who use them. “Federal rules can change, federal perspectives can change. It just depends who sits in the White House,” she said.

Lyons says Vermont can still make progress without the legal risk. She points to a pilot program in Brattleboro where people can test the chemical makeup of their drugs and be safeguarded from prosecution.

Lawmakers have also advanced another bill that would make it easier to build recovery centers, expand needle exchanges, and extend buprenorphine decriminalization.

But Vyhovsk and other backers of decriminalization say until Vermont changes, there will always be a stigma. “I think there is a mindset that they are controversial and that they are going to do more harm,” she said.

The chair of the House Judiciary Committee says with the crossover deadline passed and other bills taking priority in the coming months, any effort to explore legalizing illicit drugs and safe consumption sites is unlikely.

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