A new coalition of law enforcement, drug treatment, and health care experts has started a provocative project: researching whether the Burlington area should be home to a facility where heroin users could shoot up, under the watchful eye of someone who could help in case of an overdose.
“Everybody understands the urgency of this,” observed Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George, describing the scope and seriousness of the national epidemic of fatal drug overdoses.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, at least 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. That includes overdoses from prescription painkillers, heroin, and fentanyl.
In Vermont, 2016 was a record year for fatal overdoses. Preliminary numbers from the state’s health department showed more than 100 Vermonters lost their lives to heroin, fentanyl, or a combination of the two.
George said a monitored injection site in the Canadian city of Vancouver has been successful in saving lives, so the concept should at least be studied for Vermont.
“To truly make a significant impact, we have an obligation to explore all possible solutions to the opioid epidemic,” George said at a press conference Wednesday announcing the formation of a coalition to consider a supervised injection site.
“Just because they work elsewhere doesn’t mean they will work here,” George continued. “We do not currently know whether safe injection sites will work in Chittenden County. But not knowing or not understanding does not mean we don’t talk about it or have a conversation about it.”
Tom Dalton, the director of the Howard Center’s safe recovery program, is one of the committee members.
“We know of people who use in unsafe settings who would like to be using in safer settings,” Dalton said in response to a question from necn. “A lot of people are having to use in secret. So they may be alone and if they were to overdose, there’s nobody there to give them [the overdose-reversal treatment] Narcan, there’s nobody there to call 911. So we definitely believe there are people who would be interested in having a safer place.”
But a supervised drug use center would face a lot of hurdles. Some major questions include: how would one be funded? Would one butt heads with state law, and how would federal controlled substances laws be addressed? And would the public accept it?
Rep. Selene Colburn, P/D-Burlington, recently introduced a bill in the Vermont House allowing for the creation of supervised drug consumption sites.
The pending legislation called for such facilities to register with the Vermont Department of Health. The proposed rules would allow clients to use illegal drugs purchased elsewhere to use their drugs in the center while trained staff members look on.
The bill would remove the potential for criminal prosecution for consuming drugs in a registered center.
“It may well normalize behavior that we don’t want normalized,” Chief Brandon del Pozo of the Burlington Police Department said of one possible concern about the concept.
Del Pozo, who will serve on the committee, said he has not yet formed an firm opinion on the issue.
However, del Pozo said before the community goes down the route of supervised injection sites, he’d first like to see Vermont care providers be able to offer drug treatment on demand. Right now, there are wait lists for drug addiction treatment.
“I would have a hard time accepting this if it were not offered to – at least – offer treatment without delay to anyone who wants it,” del Pozo told reporters Wednesday.
The prosecutor leading this conversation said she knows a supervised injection site would be a divisive topic, which may seem “raw” or “immoral” to some in the community.
So Sarah George assured people she would only support such a facility if her committee convinces her it would save lives, and if the community has the resources to handle it.