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.

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  1. 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

    This is a bad idea. I don’t care what the good intentions are behind it, it’s a bad idea. If people want to eat or shoot up whatever drugs they want, I don’t care. But I also don’t think the government needs to be in the business of enabling it.

    1. Yep. A charity funded site is a much better option, especially if it does not keep records that could be confiscated.
      Of course, that would require the feds to butt out, and reassign a bunch of drug warriors to crimes that actually cause harm to others than the alleged guilty perp.

    2. I agree that they are a horrible idea.

      But I also agree that if that’s what the people of Vermont want to try then they should be able to tell the Feds to go pound sand. Because the Federal Controlled Substance Act is an egregious, un-Consitutional insult to our liberty.

      It is none of their damned business.

      1. If ‘people of Vermont’ want it, then ‘people of Vermont’ can pay for it. The ‘people of Vermont’ who aren’t interested in it shouldn’t be roped into financing it just because.

        1. Well, yes. That goes without saying for all government. Better that any such initiatives be private endeavors.

          But I kinda don’t see this fight being about Federal desire to limit state tax burdens.

          1. But I kinda don’t see this fight being about Federal desire to limit state tax burdens.

            I don’t care.

            1. You speaking for Vermonters, or as a Vermonter?

              1. Because, even if this were a wholly private endeavor the Feds would still be coming down on them.

                1. My initial comment has nothing to do with the topic you want to discuss. If you want to discuss your topic, make a new comment and wait for people to reply to it. I’m not really interested in what you want to talk about.

                  1. But, judging from your behavior, you apparently are.

          2. That goes without saying for all government

            Sadistic, baby-grabbing border guards?

            Warmongers with defense contracts?

            Micromanagers of abortion clinics?

            Flabby presidents?

            Soldiers conducting pre-emptive attacks (against the wrong country)?


            Gay-bashing county clerks?

            Police officers?

            1. Um, yes.

              It would be ideal if all government activity were funded voluntarily.

              What constitutes ideal government activity is another question.

    3. $parkY, would you please comment on how your comment is substantively differently from “I think emergency rooms are a bad idea. If people want to climb trees and break their arms falling out of them, I don’t care. But I also don’t think the government needs to be in the business of enabling it.”

      1. Do you really think that the government should be responsible for providing sites where people can go and safely break their arms? A hospital emergency room is not at all equivalent to a safe injection site. The only thing they might have in common is that you might find doctors or nurses there.

        And for the record, the government has no business in the hospital industry either.

        1. What Sparky said. And false equivalency.

          1. Equating the risk of tree climbing to the risks of injecting narcotics (or who really knows what) is a bit of a stretch.

            Unless the SIFs are also going to start providing the drugs…

    4. If people want a place to settle legal or contractual disputes between them without violence, I don’t care. But I also don’t think the government needs to be in the business of enabling it.

      1. Amen to that.

      2. If two parties agree to settle their dispute with violence, so long as they limit their violence to the ageeing parties who is anybody to say or act otherwise?

  2. Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, deserves credit for appointing a public servant such as Sarah George, a Democrat, to a position from which she can accomplish so much liberal-libertarian good.

    At $100,000 annually (substantially less than what a first-year lawyer makes at a good law firm), Sarah George is a bargain for the public.

  3. The argument for safe injection sites is a public health and safety issue.

    It is given the IV drug user has a self inflicted harm and should be responsible for that. Problem is many do not take responsibility and there are resulting collective risks and harms to innocent people. These harms include risk of transmission of blood borne diseases including hepatitis and HIV, medical costs which are paid for one way or the other, law enforcement, chronic unemployment and homelessness resulting in secondary costs to the public, and so on.

    Ideally taxpayers should not have to pay anything however we already do. If a proposal like this could save money and mitigate public health and safety risks then it at least deserves consideration.

    Results from the Vancouver project. http://www.cmaj.ca/content/179/11/1143.short


    I think most of us agree that criminalization is the wrong approach, it is expensive and ineffective in addition to liberty issues. When alternatives are proposed I think at least a pilot program to be judged by cost saving and public health measures is good idea.

  4. SISs are a bad idea. They perpetuate the misery of the addict by giving up on them and expect that there is no help for them except to die an eventual early death. The 100% “positive” studies for SISs are unscientific at best, self-serving at worse. They increase public overdoses, public deaths, public use, needle litter, homelessness, crime.

    My arguments against SISs are in the comment section here. I also include more positive scenarios for user/addicts by experts in the field:


    1. Yes, they are a horrible idea. Either operating one or using one is not something I would recommend to anyone, they are a terrible decision.

      While we can discourage people from making bad decisions it is not our business to interfere if people freely choose to make them.

      Nor should they expect anyone else to come in and clean up their messes.

    2. Opiods have been used by hundreds of millions, if not billions of people throughout history; the history, the real story is fascinating, from poppy seeds found in Neanderthal encampments in Switzerland, to the opium wars (opium did not “enslave” the Chinese; the British did), to now. Yes, synthetic opioids are very dangerous (those peaky German scientists who split the primary molecule in opium gum into diacetylmorphine; “heroisch” means “heroic” in German. Yeah, heroin.
      Heroin was brought to us by German scientists.

      Papaver somniferum is a fascinating plant, and fair harmless as given us by God, as is all but our free will. And the drug war was not begun to control drugs. Some of Anslinger’s (almost all of them apparently) agents worked for Chinese heroin dealers. And Nixon’s Erlichman, and Haldeman both have said, on record, that the drug war had nothing to do with drugs. Don’t believe everything you think; little of what you are told, and none of what you have bought.

  5. Eight to five says God’s Own Prohibitionists organize a lynch mob to torch Sarah George’s office. The whole point of everything is to maximize suffering to please the Bloody Jesus myth, just as the Bloody Jesus myth was invented to please the cruel and oh-so-usual superstitious bigots who write prohibition laws.

  6. Pure Buprenorphine is not prescribes anymore, far as I can tell (and that is far); can, and does work, when done with a doctor who knows what they are doing (few do understand opioids well). Look to Portugal; England when opioids were legalized, and controlled. Not only does overdose and HIV go down, so does crime; and productivity goes up. A form of “opioid”; morphine-with about 40 other molecules for balance, was opium, a very mild, effective plant gum. Hard to sell and patent, like pill form synthetic, and very strong opioids. Read “Chasing the Scream” by Johann Hari, if any of this concerns you. See Portugal; most of Europe, for that matter. Harry Anslinger, who brought us the drug war, was an old deamon queen who brought great suffering to this earth. Anslinger mentored Arpaio; Arpaio clings to his God, in hopes to be forgiven one day. Live long, and prosper, Joey; you will get what you deserve when you leave your body, as do we all, no? And Joe; retire; you’ve earned a nice warm place

    1. it is prescribed still, just not that often largely because it is schedule 2 and not 3 like suboxone…

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