Chittenden County state's attorney, health officials push for supervised injection sites

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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) One of the state's leading prosecutors says she will back legislation legalizing supervised injection sites in Vermont. It's a debate that has also stirred opposition over liability and public policy that would allow the use of opioids.

"As part of the law enforcement community, I have an obligation to examine all potential solutions," said Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George.

Standing with a commission of top law enforcers and health leaders, the Chittenden County State's Attorney announced support to bring supervised injection sites to Vermont. The decision comes after months of research that formed the commission's newly released report.

"It was clear that by our last meeting, it was not so much a question of whether we should do this, but a question of when," George said.

While there are currently no other supervised injection sites operating in the U.S., there are some in other parts of the world, including this one in Ontario. The facilities are a spot where addicts who illegally obtain drugs can find a "safe" place to get high and not face criminal consequences. They offer supervision from medical professionals, reversal drugs for overdoses, clean needles, access to treatment, and screenings before users can leave.

"We're all up here with a shared sense of urgency," said Grace Keller with the group Safe Recovery.

In 2016, Vermont had 106 accidental and undetermined opioid-related deaths -- a 41-percent increase from 2015. And the Department of Health says opioid-related fatalities have more than doubled since 2010.

But not all state leaders are on board. In a statement, Vermont Department of Public Safety Commissioner Thomas Anderson said:

"The better strategy is for Vermont to focus its limited resources on preventing the use of opioids and heroin in the first place, treating those who seek and want treatment for this disease, and supporting those in recovery. Facilitating the ongoing use of heroin through SIFs sends the wrong message, at the wrong time, to the wrong people."

It's a message that Governor Phil Scott echoed Wednesday. "It seems as though there are better methods to treatment than offering these kind of injection safe sites," Scott said.

Others are still unsure. "At this point in time, we don't have a position on safe injection sites," said Dr. Mark Levine with the Department of Health.

The commission's report also included two surveys of addicts, and whether they'd use a safer injection site. Results from one showed strong support, while the second showed a mix of opinions.

But whether or not the sites have a shot will largely depend on legislative support. Two mirrored bills that would legalize safe injection sites are set to be reviewed in the next session starting in January.