Crime and Justice

House backs bill decriminalizing opioid treatment drug

Ann Pugh
Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, speaks during a news conference at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Vermont House on Thursday backed legislation that would decriminalize small amounts of buprenorphine, a prescription drug used to treat opioid dependence. 

By a vote of 126-19, the House advanced the bill, which would allow people to possess up to 224 milligrams of the substance — or about two weeks’ worth of a prescription — even if they don’t have a doctor’s permission. 

The legislation, H.225, is expected to win final House approval on Friday before being sent to the Senate. 

Speaking on the virtual House floor Thursday, Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, the chair of the House Human Services Committee, said the measure would “support and encourage Vermonters seeking safer alternatives to manage their substance use disorders.” 

“It’s a path toward entering medically supervised treatment, and it will save lives,” Pugh said. 

Possessing buprenorphine in Vermont is currently a misdemeanor crime, though legislators say cases are rarely prosecuted. The drug is commonly prescribed as Suboxone or Subutex. 

In 2018, Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George announced she would stop prosecuting buprenorphine possession altogether. George told lawmakers last week that in the year following the policy shift, overdose deaths in Chittenden County dropped by more than 50%. 

Decriminalizing buprenorphine has been debated in the Vermont Statehouse during the past three legislative sessions. Last year, a similar bill cleared the human services committee but was sidelined after the Covid-19 pandemic hit. The revival of the buprenorphine bill this session comes as Vermont has seen a spike of drug overdoses during the pandemic.  

The measure won approval Thursday afternoon following about an hour of debate. 

“What we are saying here is that we value people’s lives more than the ability to charge a handful of folks a year with a misdemeanor offense, which is doing nothing for anyone,” said Rep. Selene Colburn, P/D-Burlington, who was the lead sponsor of the buprenorphine legislation during the previous legislative biennium. 

Fighting back tears, Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, told her colleagues that nearly four years ago, her niece died of a fentanyl overdose. She said she had faith the bill could save lives. 

“Had something less lethal been available to her, she might be alive today,” Partridge said. 

While the bill received unanimous support from Democrats and Progressives, some Republican House members raised concerns about it. 

Rep. Kenneth Goslant, R-Northfield, who voted against the measure, said he believed it would save lives, but he said he also worried it could lead an “unsuspecting, uninformed young person down the road toward addiction.”

“If that tragic event was to happen, my decision would haunt me for life,” he said. 

He added that he felt the bill was “rushed” and wished it had received more testimony. The human services committee took extensive testimony on the bill in 2020 but little in 2021. 

Mark Levine, Vermont’s health commissioner, opposed buprenorphine decriminalization in 2019 — and still doesn’t support the bill. 

Two years ago, he said he would support decriminalization in any state but Vermont, arguing that substance use disorder treatment was widely available in Vermont. Therefore, he reasoned, there was no need to legalize possession of the drug without a prescription.

In written testimony this week, the commissioner said he was concerned the bill would “incentivize diversion” of buprenorphine — increasing demand for the drug on the street and “the risk that a patient sells their drugs for the cash.” 

Levine said he’s also worried it would “disincentivize treatment” and that someone who used diverted buprenorphine “may be less likely to find their way to our treatment systems and recovery supports.” 

“I don’t think we should create a scenario where we might unravel some of the past good work that has been done and jeopardize the success of the hub and spoke system for the sake of appearing innovative,” Levine wrote, referring to Vermont’s drug treatment model

Pugh said that while Vermont has continued to boost its drug treatment services, there are still people who lack access.

She said the human services committee heard testimony from doctors who said that patients who used non-prescription buprenorphine are “oftentimes more successful in their recovery.”

Rep. William Notte, D-Rutland, said that although treatment is available without a waiting period in some parts of the state, people are not always ready for it. 

“If we need to meet people halfway — if we need to meet people more than halfway to encourage them not to use opioids, to encourage them to avoid heroin and to find a safer alternative to help get their life back on track, that’s to their good,” he said. “That’s to the good of their family … that’s to the good of all Vermonters.”

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Xander Landen

About Xander

Xander Landen is VTDigger's political reporter. He previously worked at the Keene Sentinel covering crime, courts and local government. Xander got his start in public radio, writing and producing stories for NPR affiliates including WBUR in Boston and WNYC in New York. While at WNYC, he contributed to an award-winning investigation of how police departments shield misconduct records from the public. He is a graduate of Tufts University and his work has also appeared in PBS NewsHour and The Christian Science Monitor.

Email: [email protected]

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