Gov. Phil Scott on Tuesday vetoed the Legislature’s opioid response bill, which commissioned a feasibility study on opening an overdose prevention site — a place where people can use illicit drugs without fear of arrest, and with medical supervision in case of an overdose.
While the bill, H.728, also requested other reports related to substance use, the working group and study related to establishing such a site in Vermont is what prompted the governor’s veto, according to Scott’s letter to the General Assembly.
In the letter, Scott called overdose prevention sites an “experimental strategy.”
“From my standpoint, it seems counterintuitive to divert resources from proven harm reduction strategies to plan injection sites without clear data on the effectiveness of this approach,” he wrote.
Scott argued that most data on existing overdose prevention sites was collected from large cities, so “it’s not applicable to the vast majority of Vermont.”
Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, said Tuesday evening that it appeared Scott “was not fully informed on what the bill would do.”
“If he thinks that this is diverting resources, or directing his administration to do something, I think he's misreading the bill,” Hardy said.
Hardy pointed to the hundreds of overdose prevention sites currently operating in Europe, as well as the sites that opened in New York City in late 2021. An estimated 270 potential overdoses have been averted thanks to the New York sites, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, and the centers have been widely credited with expanding access to other substance use disorder treatment services.
Hardy had hoped the working group laid out in this bill would adapt those findings to Vermont.
“There is evidence, there is data, that shows that they work,” Hardy said, “And this was merely a study — yet another study, another working group — to see if we could make one work in Vermont.”
This would be Vermont’s third major public study on overdose prevention sites. In 2017, Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George organized a commission of law enforcement and health professionals who endorsed the idea.
During the legislative session, Hardy, who serves on the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, had hoped this bill actually would establish a site instead of commissioning another study, she said. According to Hardy, Department of Health personnel testified to lawmakers that they’d be open to such a site.
“It's clear that the governor is not serious about fighting the opioid crisis in Vermont if he's vetoing this bill,” she said.
Brenda Siegel, an anti-poverty activist who is now the Democratic party’s presumptive nominee in the governor’s race, said she was expecting the governor to block H.728 but nevertheless found the veto “infuriating.”
“He's not following the science,” Siegel said. “He’s not following the data… When we have the tools to do better, there is no good reason why we would not do better.”
Siegel’s nephew, Kaya Siegel, died of a heroin overdose in 2018.
Siegel supports overdose prevention sites, as well as decriminalizing illicit drugs, she said. Should she be elected governor, she said she would also push for “treatment on demand” — including no delays before someone could receive medication for substance use disorder.
“We should not be satisfied that we have done enough until people stop dying, until we stop burying our children,” Siegel said.
Scott has now vetoed 11 bills this session, matching the record for the number of vetoes in a single year. Howard Dean also vetoed 11 bills in 1994, and Scott had previously matched that record in 2018. During his time in office, Scott has vetoed 35 bills, the most of any governor.
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