Vermont's most populous county is joining a handful of communities around the country considering setting up safe injection sites for heroin and other opioid users to reduce overdoses and get more people into treatment.
Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George has asked a committee of law enforcement and health care professionals to evaluate the possibility of such a site.
"I want to make sure that I have the people, the best people, in making that decision and telling me whether or not they think it's something that we can do here," she said Wednesday.
Vancouver, British Columbia, is running the only such site in North America. Seattle and King County in Washington state are moving ahead with plans for such a site but no location has been identified, said James Apa, communications director for Public Health-Seattle & King County.
In Vermont, drug overdoses from heroin and prescription drugs jumped in the last year, according to a new report from the Vermont Department of Health to the Legislature. Heroin deaths nearly doubled from 29 in 2015 to 51 in 2016 while prescription drug overdoses rose from 66 in 2015 to 104 in 2016, according to preliminary figures.
In Chittenden County, home to Vermont's largest city, Burlington, the most current data shows drug-related fatalities rose from 20 in 2010 to 31 in 2015.
Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo, who is on the committee, said drug users seeking treatment would have to wait months to get help due to current waiting lists.
Del Pozo said Vermont needs to offer treatment without delay. "I mean real treatment without delay as a companion to something like a safe injection site," he said.
A bill introduced by two Burlington House representatives proposes that anyone associated with such a site would be immune from drug-related criminal liability and civil forfeiture actions.
No timeframe has been set for the committee to make a decision.
"Everybody understands the urgency of this. And I think it will be much sooner than later," George said.