MONTPELIER — As the state’s opioid overdose numbers continue trending in the wrong direction – a record 237 deaths in 2022 – lawmakers are working to give people more resources to reduce harm and treat substance use disorder.
That work continued Wednesday, when an opioid policy bill sponsored by state Rep. Dane Whitman of Bennington overwhelmingly passed the state House of Representatives.
The passage came days after the Department of Health announced the state saw a 10 percent increase in overdose deaths in 2022, setting a record for the third year in a row. Nearly all of those deaths involved fentanyl, a powerful opioid painkiller that experts and law enforcement agencies say is now present in most street drugs, including heroin and cocaine.
“This is a huge issue that’s impacted so many families and so many loved ones across the state. The loss that’s felt from Vermonters who have died from fatal overdose is much larger than this bill,” Whitman said Thursday. “This bill is a necessary step to look throughout our state and do our job as lawmakers, to make sure that we’re responding to the crisis that we’re experiencing.
“There’s a lot more work to do – we all know there’s a lot more work to do – but this is a step in the right direction,” Whitman said.
The bill, H. 222, permanently decriminalizes buprenorphine, a drug used to treat opioid addiction, and removes zoning barriers to establishing recovery housing.
In 2021, Vermont became the first state in the nation to decriminalize possession of personal dose amounts of buprenorphine, but only for a two-year trial period. The drug, also known as Suboxone, is prescribed in medication-assisted treatment, as it counters the euphoric effects of heroin and other opioids. Like other drugs, it can be obtained on the street.
The bill passed by the House on Wednesday makes that decriminalization permanent.
“The importance of this is we know there are gaps in the treatment system that force Vermonters to take their health and safety into their own hands,” Whitman said, citing examples of people who were discharged from rehab, released from the corrections system or had doctors’ appointments canceled. “We don’t want that to mean someone needs to turn to heroin or fentanyl to manage their substance use disorder. If someone needs to use buprenorphine we are not punishing them for that.”
Eliminating zoning barriers to recovery housing, Whitman said, is part of reducing the stigma of substance use disorder – which discourages many people from receiving treatment that could save their lives.
“We’ve seen prolonged battles against recovery housing coming to communities because of the beliefs held by folks opposed to people with recovery living in their neighborhoods,” he said.. “We wanted to make sure recovery housing is treated as a group home. These are people living with a health condition.”
The bill stipulates that a recovery house with eight or fewer people “shall be considered by right to constitute a permitted single-family residential use of property.”
The bill, which passed on third reading on Wednesday and by a 138-1 roll call vote on second reading Tuesday — Rep. Art Peterson, R-Rutland 2, was the lone no vote — also establishes a statewide syringe disposal program, proposes a study of providing sterile syringes as a harm reduction measure, and aims to reduce the paperwork patients must submit to access recovery services.
A similar bill, which would have sought a study of safe injection sites, was vetoed by Gov. Phil Scott last summer. But Whitman said the administration’s cooperation in drafting the current bill, along with support from Republican, Progressive and independent House members, leads him to believe this bill will be approved and signed into law.
“I feel confident that this is such an urgent priority and we worked with so many people across the aisle,” he said. “This should get passed and signed by the governor.”
“This is a public health crisis that demands a comprehensive response, and I am proud of the bill that the House passed today,” House Speaker Jill Krowinski said in a news release. “I am hoping that the critical resources in this bill and our proposed state budget will provide the support needed in our committees to address immediate substance use needs and address the root causes of this crisis.”
The third reading vote Wednesday, which finalized passage and sent the bill to the state Senate, came the same day U.S. Sens. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and Rick Scott, R-Fla., proposed legislation aimed at fighting the surge of fentanyl-related deaths through improved data collection and increased police training.
Welch, who spoke with Vermont News & Media on Thursday, said Scott reached out to him a couple of weeks ago in search of a Democratic partner to help sponsor the bill. Scott, whose state is also hard-hit by the overdose crisis, had been working on the issue for some time, Welch said. And there’s a recognition in the Senate that bipartisan legislation has a better chance of advancing through the process and becoming law.
“I agree that we’re not peanut butter and jelly,” Welch said of the political and ideological differences between himself, a liberal Democrat, and Scott, a conservative Republican. “But there’s a shared agenda. Fentanyl is a wicked problem in Florida and a very severe problem in Vermont.”
Welch said he has heard from constituents, recovery advocates and law enforcement agencies across the state about the fentanyl problem. It poses a serious problem because it’s increasingly part of street drugs, is cheap to produce and sell, and is relatively easy to smuggle, he said.
“I heard from Howard Center [in Burlington], I heard from Turning Point, I heard from the Attorney General’s office. All of them are noticing the upsurge in fentanyl. All of them are saying we need better data,” Welch said.