Lawmakers, prosecutor say it’s time for Vermont to decriminalize drugs

Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George speaks during a public forum on prison reform sponsored by VTDigger in Burlington on February 4, 2020. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

It’s time for Vermont to decriminalize all drugs, said several left-leaning lawmakers and Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George on Wednesday. The push for decriminalization came during a press conference during which lawmakers unveiled a number of new bills to address the state’s overdose crisis.

By November of 2020, 134 overdose deaths had been reported that year in Vermont, compared to 99 deaths in 2019, according to the state Department of Health. Lawmakers said the pandemic has made life harder for Vermonters struggling with substance use — a population they said has been overlooked by the state’s Covid response efforts. 

"Drugs are not illegal because they are dangerous, but they are certainly more dangerous because they're illegal," said George, a longtime proponent of progressive drug policies. "Everything is safer when it's legalized and regulated, and legal drugs are safer than illegal drugs."

Last year’s bill to legalize possession of small amounts of buprenorphine, which is taken in place of heroin, had tri-partisan support but was set aside to address pandemic-related legislation. 

Rep. Selene Colburn, P/D-Burlington, and former lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Brenda Siegel said that after Portugal decriminalized all drugs in 2001, the country saw a significant reduction in overdose deaths. More recently, in November 2020, Oregon voters approved a decriminalization ballot initiative. Speakers at the press conference argued that Vermont should be the next state to do so.

Colburn said a bill to decriminalize drugs across the board was still being drafted but would be introduced in the Legislature later this session.

Not everyone at Wednesday’s event endorsed the idea. The state's top law enforcement official, Attorney General TJ Donovan, said he did not support full decriminalization — or even the more limited decriminalization of plant-based drugs, such as ayahuasca, peyote and DMT. 

Lawmakers also discussed bills to decriminalize such plant-based drugs and buprenorphine.

Other new bills would end pre-authorization for those in substance use treatment, especially people on Medicaid. This measure would ensure that patients and doctors, rather than insurance providers, could decide how long people need to be in recovery. The bill would also limit the use of arrest warrants compelling people to return to their home communities when they're elsewhere seeking treatment for substance use, rather than staying in that treatment program.

Siegel said there's "plenty of good data" that says the way Vermont has been trying to address drug use and recovery isn't working. 

She said the "hub and spoke" model for medication-assisted treatment that the state has touted for the past few years was only reaching about three in 10 Vermonters. She said many Vermonters would have to travel over an hour for that kind of treatment and often can’t because of work, family and transportation barriers.

“We have to take this disease out of the criminal justice system,” Siegel said. “We have to put it in the hands of science, just as we would on climate change and with Covid. It has to be about the science and those who have experienced this problem. It’s time to decriminalize this disease and treat it like the public health crisis it is.”

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Ellie French

About Ellie

Ellie French is a general assignment reporter and news assistant for VTDigger. She is a recent graduate of Boston University, where she interned for the Boston Business Journal and served as the editor-in-chief of The Daily Free Press, BU’s student newspaper. She is originally from Duluth, Minnesota.

Email: [email protected]

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