Vt. lawmakers consider decriminalizing opioid treatment drug

Published: Apr. 29, 2021 at 6:10 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Amidst skyrocketing overdose deaths, Vermont lawmakers are considering whether to make it easier for drug users to possess buprenorphine, a drug used to help break opioid dependence.

Scott Pavek has battled substance use disorder since he was a teenager, going through several treatment stints. Though buprenorphine wasn’t the reason he entered recovery eight years ago, he says it’s opened pathways for others to get out of active addiction. “The first time I sought out buprenorphine, it was because as a teenager, I heard there was a new medication that people were taking to stop using opioids and I just wanted that relief,” Pavek said.

Buprenorphine, which includes the common namebrand drug Suboxone, is itself an opioid. Instead of delivering the high of heroin or powerful prescription painkillers, it keeps drug users from experiencing withdrawal symptoms. It has to be prescribed, usually in the emergency room, and often becomes part of a drug treatment program.

Vermont lawmakers are looking at a bill that would decriminalize possession of fewer than 224 milligrams, or about a 10 day supply. Advocates say that would help reduce heroin use and overdose deaths. That’s what happened in 2018 when Chittenden County stopped prosecuting buprenorphine possession cases, and the death date was cut in half a year later.

“It’s certainly going to be easier for people to get an illicit buprenorphine strip than a prescribed one,” said Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George. “We want people to be making that choice to possess the buprenorphine one way or another, versus the heroin which will kill them.”

Overdose deaths have been on the rise in Vermont, peaking at 157 last year. That’s nearly 40 more deaths than in 2019. But some in public health and law enforcement say the measure may have unintended consequences. Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine says interactions with law enforcement are a critical intervention point and are how many people are referred to treatment.

“There must be an immediate opportunity for the apprehended individual to be immediately connected with resources or services,” Dr. Mark Levine told a joint meeting of lawmakers Thursday. “Whether that be the caseworker at the BPD, or the social worker embedded in the state police barracks.”

Instead, leaders of Vermont’s law enforcement want to see buprenorphine arrests tied to mandatory treatment. “The diversion system could then shuttle people into treatment and provide some level of oversight and support for them as they seek that treatment, again, rather than going to a street corner or a hotel room to try to purchase drugs to medicate themselves,” said Vt. Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling.

But Pavek is among those that disagree, saying a path to recovery looks different for everyone. He also says that buprenorphine should be included in the toolbox of options for Vermonters to seek recovery at their own pace. “Buprenorphine offers a harm reduction point, in terms of offering people that stability to enter treatment, of finding the treatment that works for them when they’re ready,” he said.

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