Vermont on the Verge of Authorizing Safe Consumption Sites

    The Vermont House of Representatives passed a bill on January 11 to allow health providers to open and operate safe consumption sites (also known as overdose prevention centers, or OPC). The bill has now passed to the Senate, where it was read and referred to the Health and Welfare Committee on January 16.

    Republican Governor Phil Scott has vowed to block the measure, H. 72. “I just don’t think a government entity should be in the business of enabling those who are addicted to these drugs that are illegal,” he said.

    But advocates for H. 72 told Filter they believe they have enough votes in the legislature to override a veto, which would require two-thirds support. Democrats hold supermajorities in the Vermont House and Senate, and have overridden Gov. Scott’s vetoes on other matters.

    “We did the research. Trust the science!”

    State Representative Taylor Small (D), who sponsored the legislation, points to the severity of the overdose crisis as demanding this response.

    “Now is the time for us to act,” she told Filter.

    Small and other lawmakers looked to Rhode Island, New York City, and even rural Canada, with demographic characteristics closer to Vermont’s own rural population, as their models. “We did the research,” Small said. “Trust the science! That’s our go-to motto.”

    A wealth of evidence has demonstrated that safe consumption sites save lives, among other benefits, and without the negative outcomes that opponents predict. People can use state-banned drugs at the facilities, with trained staff and resources on hand to prevent harms. The first two sanctioned OPC in the United States opened in Manhattan in late 2021, and had averted over 1,000 overdoses by August 2023. More than 200 OPC, some of them established for years, operate in 14 countries worldwide.

    Vermont’s bill earmarks $2 million in funding for two locations, a facility in Burlington, and another in the state’s south, reports Champlain Valley News. If it becomes law, Vermont will join Rhode Island and Minnesota among states to authorize the sites (Manhattan’s are sanctioned by New York City).

    Ahead of the vote, House members gave emotional testimony. Rep. Emilie Kornheiser (D) spoke about witnessing deaths in her small town of Brattleboro. “In the last 10 years I watched those children die. I’ve also grieved the deaths of my friends’ precious children, of my own loved ones, of clients. And we can’t go on like this.”

    “Vermont has experienced incredible growth in overdoses. OPCs are a part of the solution.”

    Vermont’s overdose fatalities surged by 359 percent between 2000 and 2018, according to the Vera Institute. The Vermont Department of Health recently found that rates of deaths involving xylazine and gabapentin as well as opioids are on the rise, signaling an ever riskier drug supply.

    “Vermont has experienced incredible growth in overdoses over the last decade,” Grey Gardner, senior policy counsel at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Filter. “OPCs are a part of the solution to the overdose crisis. OPCs are vital for saving lives and improving access to care. Around the world, they are saving lives and communities.”

    Vermont is undertaking other evidence-based approaches to the overdose crisis and related harms. The state has expanded its syringe access program, and legislators have passed a criminal immunity measure to help people who want to test their drugs for unwanted substances.

    House Republicans argued against OPC during the hearings. “Passage of H.72 will make Vermont drug dealers very happy,” said Rep. Arthur Peterson, according to Valley News. “We are creating a situation where valued human beings are being seated on a plane with no pilot, no engine and no wings,” said Rep. Gina Galfetti.

    But in 2023, the federal government, for the first time, allocated $5 million over four years to study the impact of the two OPC in New York City and a site in Providence, Rhode Island. Researchers are analyzing the impact on overdose rates, and the balance of savings and costs of the sites, including their impact on the criminal justice system, the Associated Press reported.

    “The status quo is not saving lives.” 

    Rep. Small is confident that the bill will ultimately pass with enough support to override the governor’s veto. She chalks up the popularity of the legislation to two factors: Vermont’s truly catastrophic overdose fatality rate—“We lead the nation”—and a reframe of messaging that better communicates what OPC do.

    “’Safe injection sites’ … I can see why people are against them,” Small said. “It sounds like a person just goes to shoot up and that’s it. There’s stigma to ‘safe injection sites’ and that designation doesn’t describe the fullness of services in these overdose prevention centers.”

    These services include treatment, physical care and therapy, among others.

    Advocates for establishing OPC in Vermont believe that Rep. Galfetti’s pilotless aircraft analogy about the facilities better describes the way things are right now.

    “The status quo,” Small said, “is not saving lives.”



    Photograph of Vermont State House in Montpelier by Justin A. Wilcox via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0

    The Drug Policy Alliance previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.

    • Tana is a reporter covering criminal justice, drug policy, immigration and politics. She’s written for the Washington Post,, Glamour, Gothamist, Vice and the Stanford Social Innovation Review. She also writes on Substack. She was previously deputy editor of The Influence, a web magazine about drug policy and criminal justice, and served for years as managing editor of AlterNet. She lives in New York City.

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