Drug users inject themselves at the Insite supervised injection center in Vancouver, Canada, on May 3, 2011. An effort to pilot similar facilities in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles was vetoed Monday by Gov. Gavin Newsom. (Laurent Vu The/AFP via Getty)
Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that would have sanctioned pilot sites where people could snort or inject illegal drugs under the watchful gaze of health care workers. The measure was designed to save lives as fentanyl-related deaths surge across the state, but Newsom said it could have brought a "world of unintended consequences."
Senate Bill 57 would have paved the way for a five-year trial of so-called "safe consumption" or "supervised injection" facilities in Oakland, San Francisco and the city and county of Los Angeles. Former Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill in 2018.
"I'm acutely concerned about the operation of safe injection sites without strong engaged local leadership and well-documented, vetted and thoughtful operational and sustainable plans," Newsom said in his veto statement.
State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, who introduced the legislation, called the governor's decision "tragic" and "a huge lost opportunity" for California to address one of its deadliest problems. "We know from decades of experience and numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies that [these sites] work," he said in a statement.
Activist Gary McCoy, who last staged a hunger strike outside San Francisco City Hall demanding local leaders open these sites, expressed disappointed that his grassroots advocacy didn't pay off.
"I am very angry about the governor's decision," he said.
McCoy, who is now vice president of policy and public affairs at HealthRIGHT 360, said he spent nearly two decades unhoused and high in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. He said he usually injected drugs inside public restrooms at the library, and likely caught HIV from a dirty needle.
“I weighed 110 pounds,” said McCoy. “I had psoriasis all over my body. I hated my life so much and I wanted to die.”
Known at the time as a "frequent flier" in the city's jails and public hospitals, McCoy said he now wishes he had known where to seek help.
"If these sites had been available to me, it wouldn't have taken until I was 32 for me to finally decide that treatment was right for me," he said. "I'm certain it would have happened much sooner."
He added, “Just knowing that there's someone there that's supportive and treating me with dignity and kindness would have gone such a long way.”
More than 2 1/2 times as many San Franciscans died of accidental drug overdoses in 2020 — a record of roughly 700 people — than died from COVID-19 that year, San Francisco Mayor London Breed said earlier. She cited spiking drug overdose rates in declaring an emergency in the Tenderloin neighborhood in December.
Nationwide, drug overdose deaths increased 28.5% to more than 100,000 during the 12-month period ending in April 2021 over the same period a year earlier, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including about 10,000 Californians.
SB 57 faced significant pushback from Republican state leaders and agencies like the National Narcotic Officers' Associations’ Coalition and the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, who both argued the sites would not provide an adequate path to treatment.
“We might save one [life] here and there with the resources,” said state Sen. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh, R-Yucaipa, who voted against the measure. “But then we have another slew of people coming off the fence and becoming addicted to these drugs.”
She said sanctioned drug use sends the message that substances like heroin and cocaine are safe.
"The Legislature must work in tandem with law enforcement to get illicit drugs off our streets and hold drug dealers accountable for the lives they ruin," said state Senate Minority Leader Scott Wilk, a Santa Clarita Republican, in a statement. "SB 57 doesn’t do that and could ultimately result in innocent people becoming victims to the crimes and hazards surrounding drug abuse."
Feds considering safe injection sites
The first two publicly recognized overdose prevention sites in the United States opened in New York City in December and have been credited with intervening in more than 150 overdoses. People can go there to inject or snort illegal drugs under the supervision of trained staff who have "crash carts" stocked with naloxone and other life-saving tools. The goal is also to inspire people to seek treatment and to connect them to primary care and social services.
Rhode Island also recently approved the pilot of similar programs.
A recent cost-benefit analysis conducted by epidemiologists and sociologists at RTI International and the University of Southern California demonstrates that every dollar spent on safe consumption in San Francisco would save the city $2.33 in related health care and law enforcement costs.
Safe injection sites are also on the table at the federal level. While the U.S. Justice Department under the Trump administration adamantly opposed the possibility, Attorney General Merrick Garland’s office appears more open to it, telling The Associated Press it is "evaluating" and talking with regulators about "appropriate guardrails."
"Sites have been in operation around the world for about 30 years in Europe, Canada and Australia," said Sen. Wiener. "Not a single person has ever died of an overdose in one of these consumption sites."
In response to Newsom's veto, San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu on Monday said he would support a nonprofit immediately opening a safe injection site.
"While I am disappointed SB 57 was vetoed, San Francisco must continue to work to address our opioid overdose crisis," he said in a statement."I fully support a non-profit moving forward now with New York’s model of overdose prevention programs."
This story includes reporting from The Associated Press.
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