Vermont has become the first state to decriminalize possession of the medication-assisted treatment (MAT) drug buprenorphine.
Gov. Phil Scott signed a bill into law allowing people to legally possess up to 224 milligrams of the drug, or about two weeks’ worth, even if they don’t have a prescription. Before the law was passed, that would have qualified as a misdemeanor.
The goal is to prevent overdoses and help people overcome opioid use disorder (OUD), according to proponents, who say the shortage of MAT prescribers in Vermont — and nationwide — can make the life-saving drug hard to come by.
“The system that we have in place makes it so difficult to get medication that people will do so not through the legal means, and they shouldn’t be punished for trying to do that,” Kellen Russionello, a senior staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for drug decriminalization nationwide, told the VTDigger.
However, skeptics say there’s a lack of data to support the notion that the decriminalizing buprenorphine will lead to fewer drug-related deaths.
Experts will spend two years assessing which viewpoint is correct, examining the effectiveness of the decriminalization law. After that, the bill will expire.
While Vermont is the first state to legalize small amounts of buprenorphine specifically, the new law comes just a few months after Oregon decriminalized limited possession of all drugs — a move other states are now also considering.
While the move has been largely considered a win for Oregonians fighting substance use disorder (SUD), the change also stands to strain behavioral health providers in the state, who will be tasked with providing more people with treatment despite nationwide staffing shortages. The law took effect in February.