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Burlington continues to explore safe injection sites

Published: Dec. 28, 2021 at 3:36 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - After a record year for overdoses in Vermont, the city of Burlington is again evaluating the possibility of safe injection sites for drug users.

“I think the message we are sending to our community -- if we were to establish one of these sites -- is that you do not have to die alone,” said Scott Pavek, the city of Burlington’s new substance use policy analyst. The Burlington City Council has twice passed resolutions showing their support for overdose prevention sites but any potential site would still be years away and need to clear many legal hurdles.

The idea is to provide a place where people could use illegal substances under the supervision of medical professionals who could help if an overdose occurs.

“It’s unacceptable to have folks fall through the cracks of our social service nets and that will happen unless we do something to change that and connect people better,” said Marielle Matthews with the city of Burlington’s Vermont Racial Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Department.

It would follow the model of other overdose prevention sites which have popped up around the world, including one WCAX visited in Montreal back in 2018. Those using the space would also have access to resources including substance abuse prevention, housing assistance, and legal services.

“This is a kind of service that’s well-positioned to benefit those people who are most marginalized in our communities, who have the most difficulty accessing existing services, so really this is an opportunity to help people in so many ways,” Pavek said.

The legal of the sites remains a work in progress in this county. While the Trump Justice Department, including former U.S. Attorney for Vermont Christina Nolan said the feds would prosecute any organization who operated a site, the Biden administration has signaled it won’t oppose them.

Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan says he does not believe overdose prevention sites would violate state law. “Really, it should be an issue of local control, in my opinion. If the community wants to do this, they should have the right to do this. This is about saving people’s lives. Addiction is a disease and we should be doing everything we can to help people who are suffering with addiction,” he said.

New York City recently opened two overdose prevention sites and health officials say they averted 59 overdoses in the first three weeks they were open. Rhode Island also recently unveiled a framework to make the sites a reality.

It’s not clear who would pay for the Burlington site but city officials hope it will be a mix of public and private funding.

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