Two hundred thirty-nine Vermonters died from opioid overdoses in 2022, the third straight year with an all-time high.
But legislation signed by Gov. Phil Scott on Thursday is a wide-ranging attempt to confront the problem head-on.
The Overdose Prevention Act will be funded with $8 million the state was awarded as part of a nationwide opioid lawsuit settlement.
Burlington Parks Commissioner Lee Morrigan said the new law couldn’t have been passed and signed at a better time.
“I was incredibly pleased to see — not only will there be financial support for municipalities engaging with this legislation,” Morrigan said. “(But) people who currently suffer from substance use disorder, as well as people in recovery, are centered in this legislation.”
The Overdose Prevention Act expands access to naloxone, the overdose reversal medication often marketed as Narcan and now available over the counter.
It also permanently de-criminalizes buprenorphine, often prescribed in substance use disorder treatment. And it funds drug-checking sites where people will be able to have street drugs tested for additives like fentanyl or xylazine without risk of arrest.
“Since the ’70s, many people have been born into the war on drugs,” retired social worker Ed Baker said. “They have been inundated, inculcated, barraged with information that is based in stigma, based in fear, based in punishment. Finally — this is after decades; people have been advocating for this for years — there’s some light.”
Baker is an advocate for the harm reduction model of substance use treatment. He’s also in recovery from substance use disorder for nearly 40 years.
“We need to really, really look forward to supporting overdose prevention centers,” he said.
Last June, Gov. Phil Scott vetoed a bill calling for a feasibility study on opening a safe injection site.
Morrigan is also looking to prevention centers as the next step. However, with more than 15 years in recovery themselves, they’re also taking stock of where Vermont is now.
“If (at) the time I was getting clean and sober, my state legislature was putting measures into effect — if my mayor and city council were advocating for safe injection sites — it would have made an incredible difference in how I felt about myself and how I felt about recovery,” they said.
International Overdose Awareness Day is August 31 each year. Though the occasion is more than three months away, the Vermont Overdose Prevention Network will once again hold a rally that evening in Montpelier on the State House lawn.