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SF Health Groups Determined to Forge Ahead With Safe Consumption Site, Despite Newsom's Veto

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A man crouches down to speak to another person kneeling on the sidewalk in an alley.
Paul Harkin, director of harm reduction at GLIDE, hands out narcan, fentanyl detection packets and tinfoil to drug users in an alley in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood on Feb. 3, 2020. (Nick Otto for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

San Francisco health clinic leaders are livid with Gov. Gavin Newsom over his veto Monday of a safe-drug-consumption bill that would have piloted sites where people could use illegal drugs under the supervision of health care workers.

“Newsom owns every overdose death in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles,” said Vitka Eisen, CEO of HealthRIGHT 360, a San Francisco community health care nonprofit, referencing the three cities that would have participated in the pilot program.

Despite Newsom’s veto, HealthRIGHT 360 and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation say they will move to set up at least one safe consumption site in the city.

"We are ready, we've done the work,” said Laura Thomas, director of harm reduction policy at the SF AIDS Foundation, the city’s largest provider of harm-reduction services.

It's unclear when a site would open, however, as the groups still need to find a location and seek out funding to run it.

If Newsom had signed SB 57, it would have provided legal protections for health care workers who operate the sites. But the two organizations are confident they can run the clinic without interference from law enforcement, after City Attorney David Chiu on Monday pledged his support for such a site.

“The tragedies on our streets have to stop,” Chiu told KQED. “We have to stop the deaths.”

“Every day we don't act, two more people will die tragically on our streets,” he added. “Overdose prevention programs have been proven in over 100 places around the world. There have been 22 studies of these sites that have found that they reduce deaths and improve access to care while not increasing public safety issues to the surrounding community.”

More than 1,700 people have fatally overdosed in San Francisco since 2020, often after inadvertently consuming fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 50 times stronger than heroin, according to the latest figures from San Francisco’s medical examiner — far outpacing the number of residents in the city who have died from COVID-19.

Federal law still prohibits operating, owning or renting a location for the purpose of using illegal drugs. But the U.S. Department of Justice has allowed two supervised consumption sites to operate in New York, and Attorney General Merrick Garland’s office has said it is “evaluating” the idea and talking with regulators about “appropriate guardrails.”

San Francisco wouldn’t fund or operate a site in the city, Chiu told KQED. But he wouldn’t stop one either, he said, pointing to the model currently in operation in New York, where city leaders authorized the New York Harm Reduction Educators and Washington Heights Corner Project to run two sites.

Newsom’s veto message said the unlimited number of sites authorized by SB 57 could create a “world of unintended consequences” and exacerbate current drug problems.

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Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill in 2018.

Newsom, however, still voiced some support for the idea, but in a more limited form, and directed the state’s health agency to study the issue through a working group.

But many local leaders say that's too little, too late.

“We don’t need a working group,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat who introduced the legislation. The state, he said “lost a huge opportunity” to address one of its most deadly problems.

“This coalition has been working to get state legislation passed that does nothing more than give permission to cities to open these sites,” Wiener told KQED. “It's just very, very devastating to have yet another gubernatorial veto as so many people die on our streets, two people a day in San Francisco alone.”

In Newsom’s veto statement, the governor said he first wanted to see “strong, engaged local leadership and well-documented, vetted, and thoughtful operational and sustainability plans” before throwing his support behind these sites.

That statement, in particular, seems to have hit a nerve with San Francisco community health organizers.

The AIDS Foundation’s Thomas called it “disingenuous and insulting.”

“It clearly wasn't motivated by a desire to save lives,” she said.

“We spent 20 months working on this bill in the Legislature,” Thomas added. “Multiple meetings with the governor's staff. They never raised any concerns. There was no substance to any of the concerns he raised in the veto. It was entirely a political maneuver.”


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