Vermont lawmakers have introduced four major drug policy reform proposals in March. Two of the bills would decriminalize simple possession of all drugs and expand harm reduction services; another would remove criminal penalties for using or selling psilocybin, and a fourth would decriminalize certain psychedelic plants and fungi.
Even if the bills win legislative approval, however, they face an obstacle in Governor Phil Scott (R), who last year vetoed a pair of bills containing more limited drug policy reforms.
The new all-drug decriminalization legislation, H.423, from Representatives Logan Nicoll (D) and Taylor Small (P/D), boasts 47 cosponsors, nearly a third of the 150-member House. A companion bill on the Senate side, S.119, is sponsored by Sen. Tanya Vyhovsky (P/D) and 10 others.
BREAKING: Bill to end criminalization of substance use in Vermont introduced in the House today (H.423) #vtpoli
— Decriminalize Vermont (@DecrimVermont) February 28, 2023
The proposal would replace Vermont’s current misdemeanor or low-level felony charges for simple drug possession, making the possession of “a personal use supply of drugs” a civil offense punishable by a $50 fine. People could get out of paying that penalty by agreeing to participate in a screening for substance use disorder, which would also connect them with other services.
The “dispensing” of amounts below the personal-use thresholds would similarly be subject to a $50 fine. Supporters said that’s intended to allow the sharing of small amounts of drugs.
Another provision would establish a pilot program to allow people to test their drugs.
The legislation would also seal criminal records of past convictions for possession of less than the new personal-use amounts, which under the proposal would be recommended by a new Drug Use Standards Advisory Board by January 2025.
Another provision would establish a pilot program to allow people to test their drugs “for purposes of determining the chemical composition of the substance and identifying chemical contaminants,” according to the bill. Access to drug-checking services without the fear of arrest or prosecution, it adds, “would reduce the risk of accidental death and hospitalizations and also allow for real-time tracking of drug trends.”
Amid thousands of arrests for drug possession in the past decade, fatal overdoses have continued to rise, the bill says. The criminalization of drug use has had negative effects on individuals, families and communities. Disproportionately, the impact has fallen on people of color, with some studies showing Black people were 14 times more likely than white people to be defendants in a felony drug case in Vermont.
The group Decriminalize Vermont said H.423 “would take significant steps toward building a better system of care for Vermonters who may need services to address substance use disorder, and better protect our neighbors from accidental overdose.”
“While serious obstacles remain—including a governor who appears to think that death by overdose is an acceptable way to reduce drug use—we are closer than ever to ending the disastrous War on Drugs.”
Another supporter, Dave Silberman, the high bailiff of Addison County, told Marijuana Moment that while the proposal faces “serious” obstacles to becoming law this session, support in the state for ending the drug war nevertheless continues to grow.
“Vermonters should take heart in the fact that 47 Representatives and 11 Senators, including multiple committee chairs and other senior legislators in both chambers, have joined as co-sponsors,” Silberman said in an email. “While serious obstacles remain—including a governor who by his past actions appears to think that death by overdose is an acceptable way to reduce drug use—we are in fact closer than ever to ending the disastrous War on Drugs and ushering in an era where drug policy is sounded in compassion and evidence, and which aims to save lives instead of souls.”
“We are in this for the long haul, and we will prevail,” he said.
Despite broad voter support for moving away from the criminalization of drug use in favor of treating it as a public health concern, Gov. Scott has typically opposed loosening restrictions on drugs. In 2022, he vetoed two related drug policy reform bills: one that would have set up a working group around safe consumption sites, and another that would have begun setting personal-use amounts of drugs. The latter proposal would also have removed the state’s sentencing distinction between crack and powder cocaine, a difference critics say disproportionately punishes people of color.
A survey from advocates last year found that more than four out of five Vermont voters (84 percent) were in favor of removing criminal penalties for simple drug possession, imposing a civil fine in lieu of incarceration and allocating resources for treatment and harm reduction. That support included majorities of Democrats (91 percent), Republicans (68 percent) and independents (87 percent).
H.423 earmarks $300,000 for the drug-checking program but does not appear to appropriate additional funds for treatment or recovery services. Nicoll introduced similar legislation last year and in 2021, but both times the measure failed to advance.
Two separate Vermont bills introduced this month would take narrower approaches to decriminalization, focusing specifically on psychedelics.
One, H.439, would strike psilocybin, mescaline and peyote from Vermont’s definition of hallucinogenic drugs, effectively allowing the substances by removing them from state control. That measure is sponsored by Rep. Brian Cina (P/D), who has introduced similar legislation in the past.
The other proposal, S.114, from Sen. Martine Gulick (D), would remove only psilocybin from the state’s definition of hallucinogens. Additionally, it would establish a state working group to study the substance’s physical and mental health benefits and provide recommendations on establishing a therapeutic psilocybin program.
The psilocybin-only bill has been referred to the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, while the others will head to their respective chamber’s judiciary committee.
Photograph via City of Burlington