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'A Public Health Issue': Chittenden Co. State's Attorney On Drug Decriminalization

an orange prescription bottle, syringes and white pills
Deaths from opioid overdoses in Vermont have increased 35% through November of 2020 compared with the total number of deaths recorded in all of 2019. A proposed bill looks at decriminalizing drugs in Vermont.

A total of 134 Vermonters have died from opioid overdoses through November of last year, a 35% increase from the 99 deaths reported in all of 2019. A group of lawmakers met last week to discuss potential policies, and one idea stood out: decriminalizing drugs in Vermont.

But what does it mean to decriminalize drugs? And how do we know if it'll be effective in combating opioid overdoses?

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George about a proposal to decriminalize the possession of opioids, cocaine and other drugs.  Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: What does drug decriminalization actually mean?

Sarah George:  Well, it can mean a lot of things, and our bill hasn't been finalized yet, so it's still open for discussion. But in Oregon, that just passed it, it was a decriminalization of all personal drug use possession, or personal drug possession. So it's still a crime to sell those particular drugs in Oregon, and you can get a civil ticket for possessing them. But it isn't a crime. In Portugal it was similar. In 2001, they decriminalized all drugs.

I am curious about those places that you mentioned, because Portugal as a country has decriminalized drugs for awhile now. Is there any data on how that has worked out, keeping in mind that there are, of course, cultural differences, that sort of thing. But how is that working out in Portugal?

It's worked out very well for Portugal.You're right, they decriminalized all drugs coming up on 20 years, and their drug use plummeted. Their overdose death rate is five times lower than the rest of the European Union average, which in itself is far lower than the United States. Their HIV infection rates among injection drug users dropped massively. Their use among kids actually dropped significantly.

More people [are] getting into treatment, because the theory, at least, is that if people don't feel the stigma of drug use, they're actually more likely to seek help when they're ready for it.

Now, as far as what's being proposed in Vermont, and as you say, the bill is still being put together, are we talking about all drugs being decriminalized here? And are there substances that should remain illegal? I'm thinking about hard drugs like heroin or cocaine.

I don't know what the final bill will be, but the idea is that it is all drugs. This is about a public health issue, and this is about responding to it in a public health way. So the people that might be at more risk of, frankly, dying of an overdose, should feel even more comfortable coming forward and talking about that and seeking help, because they're at a greater risk of death. So from my perspective, anything being deemed illegal is actually what creates the harm.

More from VPR: How One Shelburne Volunteer Is Responding To Overdoses In Hotel Housing

Let's say that drugs were decriminalized in Vermont. Those drugs would still be illegal at the federal level. So I'm wondering what that means for a state like Vermont, because don't state courts and law enforcement have to meet federal standards to be eligible for things like federal funding, training, things like that?

In some cases, yeah. And I'm actually curious to know how Oregon handled that. But, you know, marijuana is illegal federally. So we have decided there are some things that the benefit is worth the risk, and we make that call.

Another part of it really, I think, will make a big difference [is] who our next U.S. attorney is, because frankly, the idea that the U.S. attorney's office would prosecute misdemeanor possession of drug charges is — I've never seen them do that. Maybe they do. But this really is a local issue.

Yeah, I'm glad you mentioned this is a local issue, because the other thing is that Attorney General TJ Donovan of Vermont does not support this plan, as I understand it. So how do you respond to being at odds with Vermont's attorney general on this issue?

I mean, I know that he's against it. I don't entirely know why. I haven't heard any actual evidence-based reasons why he's against it. But again, his criminal division doesn't prosecute misdemeanor drug offenses. So with all due respect to the attorney general, I think that our offices locally are in a much better place to judge whether or not we are doing a good job at this. And we're not.

I'm a prosecutor, and I don't have the resources, especially since COVID, to adequately respond to people that are using drugs, and people who commit crimes because of drug use. Like, those crimes will still be prosecuted. I mean, I think people lose sight of that aspect. But if people are committing burglaries or holding people up at ATM's, those people are going to be prosecuted. 

What's your sense of the momentum behind this effort?

Like most things that are new and are bold, people's initial reaction, they immediately think this isn't the right way to handle it. They immediately think that more people are going to use drugs. Maybe it's going to get into the hands of their kids, those types of things.

And I understand those concerns, but none of that is actually backed by any evidence. There is ample evidence out there to show support for this and that actually not more or less people use drugs because they're legal or not. It's actually not a valid deterrent like we think it was or we want it to be, which is what the war on drugs told us. You know, it's a lie that we were fed.

Actually, people just being connected to more services is what people need in order to get help. And we really don't need the criminal justice system involved in that. But you have to be able to get people past that first hump. You have to be able to get people to think about this from a humanitarian perspective and a moral perspective, rather than thinking immediately that people who use drugs are bad and that we know better.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

We've closed our comments. Read about ways to get in touch here.

Karen is Vermont Public's Director of Radio Programming, serving Vermonters by overseeing the sound of Vermont Public's radio broadcast service. Karen has a long history with public radio, beginning in the early 2000's with the launch of the weekly classical music program, Sunday Bach. Karen's undergraduate degree is in Broadcast Journalism, and she has worked for public radio in Vermont and St. Louis, MO, in areas of production, programming, traffic, operations and news. She has produced many projects for broadcast over the years, including the Vermont Public Choral Hour, with host Linda Radtke, and interviews with local newsmakers with Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb. In 2021 Karen worked with co-producer Betty Smith on a national collaboration with StoryCorps One Small Step, connecting Vermonters one conversation at a time.
A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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