Burlington officials react to report opposing safe injection sites

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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Burlington leaders are reacting to a new state report opposing safe injection sites for drug users.

The Burlington City Council voted to explore the idea of safe injection sites back in July. The idea is to provide a place addicts can go and openly use drugs and where staff are armed with naloxone if there is an overdose. They would also be ready to talk about services with addicts ready to learn about recovery.

"The legal aspects are insurmountable. It is illegal to establish a safe injection facility," said Jolinda LaClair, the state's director of drug prevention policy.

A new study by the Governor's Opioid Coordination Council says safe injection sites for drug users is illegal, expensive and risky.

"We believe that Safe Injection Facilities at this time should not be established in the state of Vermont," LaClair said.

The study focused on multiple cities around the world, but focused primarily on Canada, where the sites are based in larger cities like Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal and are available to a lot of people in a concentrated area.

"Vermont is really different. To reach people -- we talked about transportation challenges earlier -- you're talking about having to reach that one safe injection facility," LaClair said.

Burlington Police officers see the effects of the opioid crisis every day. Chief Brandon del Pozo believes safe injection sites can help save lives, but is not sure if Vermont is the right place. "They are very controversial on several levels, and the local government right now in Vermont can do so many other things to save even more lives," del Pozo said.

"To pursue safe injection sites right now with the posture of the federal government is at best risky," said Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, who doesn't want a safe injection site in his city. He says the Burlington City Council was open to the idea but had concerns. He says there are better ways to get people help. "These efforts to get people on these very effective medicines in the emergency room, in needle exchange sites, in prison -- we think that's where the focus needs to be right now."

He says the report backs up his beliefs. It finds recovery coaches for addicts are effective and he says needle exchange sites can provide similar results as safe injection sites.

Right now there are 18 needle exchanges in Vermont. Eight are at fixed locations in cities and towns, and ten counties also benefit from mobile needle exchange units. Altogether in 2015 they handed out 950,000 needles.

"We believe that we should continue to invest and expand the investment in syringe services programs," LaClair said.

The report says the Agency of Human Services will propose using $1million from Vermont's tobacco settlement money to help expand syringe exchange programs.