Our communities are grappling with the devastating impacts of Vermont’s growing opioid crisis, a record-breaking number of overdose deaths in 2022, and the abject failure of the decades-long “war on drugs.” We need a new approach to this worsening public health crisis—one that centers the dignity and humanity of our loved ones and neighbors, expands harm reduction infrastructure, decriminalizes drug use, and fosters meaningful investments in people and communities instead of policing and prisons.

Respond to people who use drugs with support and compassion, not handcuffs

Criminalization is an ineffective—and even counterproductive—strategy for addressing the complex neurobiological and social factors that contribute to substance use. Becoming involved in the justice system triggers a cascade of negative impacts on the lives of people who are arrested and their loved ones. By extension, the criminalization of personal drug use has been a driver of overincarceration and the damaging ripple effects it has on our communities.

The war on drugs has fueled mass incarceration for generations. This has been especially harmful for people of color. Between 2014 and 2019, Black people in Vermont were over 14 times more likely to be a defendant in a felony drug case compared to white people—despite the fact that Black and white people use and sell drugs at similar rates.  

Furthermore, the criminalization of drug use increases stigmatization and drives substance use underground—making it less likely for people to seek or receive the care that they need and more likely to engage in unsafe practices that can lead to disease and death.

In addition to the human toll that criminalization and incarceration take on our communities, it is extraordinarily expensive to lock people in prison. The annual costs of incarcerating someone in Vermont is $95,000. By decriminalizing personal drug use, we can reduce our overreliance on incarceration and reinvest those savings into programs that actually serve our communities.

Expand treatment for mental health conditions and substance use disorders

Mental health and substance use diversion is an effective way to redirect people out of the criminal justice system and into supportive community treatment. Diversion programs have been shown to be effective for people charged with both nonviolent and violent offenses, and help reduce crime. Vermont currently uses post-guilty plea specialty courts to divert referred, nonviolent cases. These programs should include diversion at earlier phases in the process, like pre-arrest diversion, and eliminate eligibility limitations based on offense.

When implemented more effectively, earlier diversion can reduce arrests, encourage voluntary treatment in the community, and save money. Effective diversion programs coordinate with community services that provide a wide range of wraparound treatments and support for people with disabilities to access housing, employment, and individualized supports in the community. In the long run, diversion programs have the potential of saving jurisdictions large amounts of money. Upfront services like these are preferable to the cost and decreased efficiency of a post-plea specialty court diversion program.

In addition to bolstering the existing substance use disorder treatment model, policymakers can and should ensure that people in every corner of our state have easy access to the overdose reversal medication naloxone, drug checking services and supplies, sterile safe injection devices and disposal boxes, transportation to treatment and support services, and mobile treatment solutions.