Senate Looms Over Bupe Bill, Pillow in Hand

Funny thing happened when H.225, the bill to decriminalize possession of single doses of buprenorphine, moved over to the Senate after passing the House by a lopsided 126-19 margin. For those just tuning in, buprenorphine is a prescription opioid that can be used instead of riskier street drugs. Vermont’s death toll from overdoses has been climbing for years, and the decrim bill could save a lot of lives.

The bill reached the Senate on April 14. It was referred, not to the Health Care or Judiciary committees, but to the Rules Committee. It has languished there ever since, as the days in this session dwindle down to a precious few. (Legislative leaders are aiming for adjournment in mid-May which, despite the snow, is only three weeks away.)

And the Rules Committee has no meetings on its schedule.

This looks for all the world like a stalling tactic, as if leadership has decided (for whatever reason) to prevent the bill from reaching the Senate floor. And maybe that’s what it is, although Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint says otherwise. Sort of.

“I’ve been meeting with the Chairs of Judiciary and Health & Welfare to try to find a path forward for this bill given the late date that it came over from the House. We did not want to vote it out of Rules until we had a sense of how long testimony and due diligence would take. Health & Welfare and Judiciary are planning a joint hearing on the bill this coming week. We know we are in the midst of a horrible surge in opioid-related deaths and we want to take all measures to help address this emergency. The Chairs want to be certain that this bill will have that impact.”

That’s a written statement received Thursday afternoon in response to my inquiry. Let’s take a closer look, and then invite an expert to make the case for immediate passage of H.225.

First, yes, the bill passed the House after the usual crossover deadline. The Senate would be well within its rights to hold off action, especially since this is Year One of a biennium. If H.225 is still pending at adjournment, the Senate can pick up in January where it left off this May.

But as I often observe, there’s always a way to get something done if leadership wants it, just as there’s always a way to kill something if leadership wants it dead. Balint reveals nothing of leadership’s stand on H.225. She favors urgent action on Vermont’s opioid epidemic, but she’s agnostic on whether this bill is the best way.

There’s one little ray of sunshine in Balint’s statement: “Health & Welfare and Judiciary are planning a joint hearing on the bill this coming week.” So at least something is happening. I assume the Rules Committee will get together before that hearing and formally send the bill to one of the two policy committees.

This would be a good time to contact your Senator if you care about H.225, especially if they serve on Rules, Judiciary or Health and Welfare. All that information is available on the Legislature’s website.

The takeaway: it could happen, but it might not. I’ve heard plenty of statements like this, and they usually signal a deliberate approach. After all, it is the first year of a biennium. No harm in waiting, right?

Enter Tom Dalton, executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform and a vocal supporter of decriminalization. He authored an essay (posted this week on VTDigger) entitled “Vermont Senate must act now to prevent overdose deaths.”

He noted recent Health Department figures reporting ” an alarming 38% increase in overdose deaths across Vermont.”

That’s bad, but this puts it into perspective. More Vermonters died in 2020 from overdoses than from Covid-19. We treat one as a crisis; we bemoan the other without committing to action. Dalton says the Senate should finish work on H.225 this year “even if it requires extending the legislative session this year, as was done to address Covid-19 deaths last year.”

Seems reasonable. Except, you know, Covid is a disease that respects on person, while it’s easy to moralize about substance use. Kinda like how the Scott administration was in no hurry to vaccinate prison inmates, even though they were at very high risk. But hey, they’re inmates.

Dalton then shows how the opioid epidemic has only gotten worse since then-governor Peter Shumlin made it the only topic of his 2013 State of the State Address. That’ year, 69 Vermonters died of drug overdoses.

Shumlin was widely praised for his political bravery, but the epidemic raged on. In 2017, when Scott assembled his Opioid Coordination Council, the death toll reached 108. Last year, it hit 157.

And, Dalton says, Scott’s opioid council has been disbanded.

Is this a crisis, or isn’t it? If it is, why slow play H.225? Why wait until next year, by which time dozens upon dozens more Vermonters will be dead from overdoses?

Because a few Senators have to get thoroughly comfy with the idea? Because they treat House bills with disdain, and feel the need to reinvent everything the House just did?

Well, yeah. But if it’s a big enough priority for leadership, the skids can be greased in plenty of time to pass the bill this year. Dalton calls H.225 “the single most important step Vermont Senators can take to save lives now.”

Isn’t that enough?

If you think so, it’s time to give your Senator a good poke.


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