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Overriding the Governor’s Veto, Vermont Lawmakers Expand Access to Overdose Prevention Centers

Jeffrey A. Singer

burlington

Church Street in downtown Burlington, Vermont.

Yesterday, June 17, a bipartisan supermajority of Vermont lawmakers overrode Governor Phil Scott’s veto of H.72, authorizing an overdose prevention center pilot program in the state’s largest city, Burlington. The OPC may be either stationary or mobile. The Vermont City Council and the Vermont Department of Health must approve it before it begins operating.

The bill appropriates grant money for the OPC through fiscal year 2028, which the state must obtain from its share of the Opioid Abatement Fund resulting from the legal settlement between states and drug manufacturers and distributors. Additionally, the bill taps the Abatement Fund to contract with researchers to assess the OPC’s impact on drug overdoses in the community.

When Governor Scott vetoed a 2022 bill that would have created an OPC lawmakers did not attempt a veto override. When he vetoed H. 72 on May 30, 2024, the governor claimed OPCs were an untested harm reduction strategy. However, Vermont’s health commissioner, Dr. Mark Levine, had voiced support for the OPC provision in the bill.

As I wrote in a Cato briefing paper last year,

OPCs have a more‐​than‐​30‐​year track record of preventing overdose deaths, HIV and hepatitis, and other diseases, and of helping people with substance use disorder find treatment. As of August 2022, 147 OPCs are providing services in 91 communities in 16 countries. They continue to gain acceptance as an effective tool for reducing the dangers of using drugs obtained through the increasingly deadly black market.

In the final month of 2021, New York City defied the federal law that blocks OPCs (21 U.S.C. Section 856—the “crack house statute”) and authorized OnPointNYC, a harm reduction organization, to establish two OPCs, one in Washington Heights and one in East Harlem. By the summer of 2023, OnPointNYC reported that the two sites had already reversed more than 1,000 overdoses. Kailin See, the Implementation Lead for the two OPCs and the Senior Director of Programs for OnPointNYC, spoke about the project in a Cato online policy forum with other harm reduction experts last year that you can view here.

The US Department of Justice has not yet taken steps to thwart New York City’s successful OPC projects.

Last year, Minnesota’s governor signed a law authorizing its Department of Health Services to establish OPCs, but the agency has hesitated to open them, stating that “federal law has been interpreted as prohibiting safer use spaces.”

Rhode Island lawmakers approved OPCs in 2022; its first one will soon open in Providence.

Vermont now becomes the third state to defy federal law and authorize OPCs. Hopefully, as more states rebel against the federal ban on this proven harm‐​reduction strategy, it will prod Congress to repeal it.

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