This Vermont Prosecutor Is Pushing Back Against the DOJ's Drug Warriors

Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George will no longer prosecute misdemeanor buprenorphine cases.


Pharmacist Jim Pearce fills a Suboxone prescription at Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program in Boston, Massachusetts. Credit: BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS/Newscom

Last we reported on Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George, she was locked in a staredown with the U.S. attorney for Vermont over supervised injection facilities.

George, whose district includes Burlington and the University of Vermont's flagship campus, is among a group of county leaders who support opening a supervised injection facility (SIF), where opioid users would be able to get a fix and talk to health workers without fear of judgement, arrest, or a fatal overdose. In countries where they are legal, SIFs have been shown to lower mortality and reduce the spread of diseases such as HIV and hepatitis B.

Yet when folks in Chittenden County began talking in earnest about establishing a SIF back in 2017, U.S. Attorney Christina E. Nolan released a statement suggesting her office would prosecute anyone who tried to open a SIF and seize the property. Nolan's thinly veiled threat seems to have put the plan on ice. Vermont's legislature declined to take up a bill that would have legalized such facilities.

But George has not given up on the opioid users in her district. In a memo she sent this week to Chittenden County police chiefs, George announced her office would no longer prosecute "any citations or arrests for Misdemeanor Possession of Buprenorphine and related compounds such as suboxone," adding that "these drugs are intended to be life-saving."

Memo to police chiefs from Sarah George, via Tom Dalton of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform

Like methadone, buprenorphine and Suboxone (which combines buprenorphine with the opioid antagonist and overdose remedy naloxone) act on the opioid receptors in the brain to satisfy cravings without endangering or incapacitating users. Food and Drug Commissioner Scott Gottlieb supports the use of these therapies, as do most medically trained officials in the federal health bureaucracy.

Yet law enforcement agencies tend to take for granted that these drugs, as controlled substances, should be kept off the black market. Users who possess, share, buy, and sell drugs proven to fight heroin and opioid addiction are breaking the law if they don't have a prescription. Law enforcement agencies view bottom-up addiction treatment as so offensive that Maryland's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services recently tried to restrict shipments of books to inmates because they can be used to smuggle Suboxone strips into prisons.

George has demonstrated compassion and courage by stepping up for these life-saving interventions, particularly in the face of Nolan's interference. Back in March, George attended a meeting where her fellow harm reduction advocates in county government suggested they not do anything more to provoke Nolan. That led to the following exchange, as reported by Seven Days:

Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo counseled that the benefits of an injection site to the community may not be as widespread as they seem. "To go to war with the U.S. Attorney [to reduce about] 2.3 percent of the fatal risk—I think that's a conscious decision we'd have to make in comparison to other interventions," he said.

In response, Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George asked nine audience members—an estimate of how many lives a safe injection site may save in a year—to stand up. "Is there anyone here willing to say how much one of their lives is worth?" she queried, surveying the audience. "Ten thousand dollars?"

George encouraged the community to not let the cost of the proposal drive their decision. "Frankly, if I knew the amount [it cost], I'd go out and fundraise it for it," she said.

George may be a typical prosecutor in other ways. But on this issue, she is displaying the kind of leadership that could save lives if so many other people in government were not so hell-bent on stopping her.