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Scott urged to sign safe injection site bill

MONTPELIER — Over the past five years, Elissa Johnk, the lead minister at the First Congregational Church of Burlington, has borne witness to Vermont’s overdose crisis. 

Johnk hosts services as ambulances drive by multiple times an hour. She has found people passed out on church property. She has held burials of overdose victims in front of their children and in front of their parents. She has learned how to distinguish someone on a bad trip from someone who needs immediate medical attention. She’s learned “what bone looks like when it’s been eaten away by animal tranquilizer,” she told listeners Tuesday in the Vermont statehouse’s Cedar Creek Room. “And how to treat it.”

Johnk’s remarks were part of a last-minute effort by advocates to urge lawmakers and Gov. Phil Scott to pass into law H.72, a bill that would lay the groundwork for the creation of an overdose prevention center — aka safe injection site — in Burlington. As Vermont weathers a crushing opioid abuse crisis and rising overdoses, proponents of the bill say that a staffed, secure site could ensure that people do not endanger themselves by using alone.

Legislators have nearly finished their work with H.72. The House passed it in January, the Senate passed an amended version last week, and on Tuesday lawmakers in the House approved the Senate’s amendments. 

Grace Keller, an advocate and recovery worker, said that in the past she heard skepticism about on-demand treatment, syringe exchanges and the overdose-reversal drug Narcan. 

Now, “we know those things as ubiquitous. We know them as the tools that we have in our toolbelt,” Keller said. “The day is going to come when we’re going to think that way about overdose prevention centers.”

The bill would create a legal framework for overdose prevention centers in Vermont and would allocate $1.1 million from settlements with drug companies to fund a pilot program in Burlington.

It would also direct the state’s department of health to hire an outside entity to study the pilot’s impact on overdoses, deaths, crime, emergency services, treatment and recovery, and syringe litter in the area.

Gov. Scott, however, has made no secret of his opposition to the bill. The governor “remains opposed to the unproven injection sites,” spokesperson Jason Maulucci said Tuesday in an email, “and believes we should instead be investing those precious resources on more proven harm reduction, prevention and treatment methods.”

Could the legislature override a gubernatorial veto? Nothing is certain, but signs appear favorable: in January, House lawmakers approved the legislation by a 96-35 vote, and last week, the Senate passed the bill by 21 to eight. Both votes exceed the margin of two-thirds necessary for a veto override. 

To advocates, the passage of the bill is long overdue. 

“Not having an overdose prevention center puts the burden on all of us,” Johnk said Tuesday. “And we are not able to hold it.”

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