A California bill that would legalize “safe consumption sites” in San Francisco and Oakland — facilities where people can use drugs under medical supervision — is back on the agenda in the state capitol after a year of dormancy. And scientists and lawmakers say the COVID-19 pandemic has given measure new urgency.
The legislation, AB 362, is now being considered in the state Senate’s Health Committee after lying dormant since last May. The consideration of this bill comes as California and San Francisco have been building up the political firepower to see that facilities are set up — especially as the Trump Administration has signaled its opposition, interpreting the would-be facilities as illegal under the federal “crack house” statute.
Scientists and lawmakers say the need for safe consumption sites is more dire now than ever, as COVID-19 may only aggravate a drug epidemic that killed 6,345 Californians in 2019 — up 15.5 percent from 2018, according to new data released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control.
“The current pandemic has done nothing but exacerbate the overdose epidemic we were already seeing,” said Assemblywoman Susan Eggman, D-Stockton, who authored the bill. “During COVID-19, the last thing we should be doing is shuffling people who use drugs into jails or waiting until an overdose sends them to the emergency room.”
Dr. David Goodman, a professor of infectious diseases at UCLA who supports safe consumption sites and is now also on the front lines fighting COVID-19, added that job loss tends to drive more people to opioid use, harm reduction centers are less accessible, and people are less able to access recovery support programs right now.
Regardless of the pandemic, he said, “California has the highest increase in the number of overdose deaths — and now we have a record number of deaths around the country.”
The need for safe consumption sites is great, he said, and Bay Area residents agree, according to a paper Goodman published this month with The Justice Collaborative Institute, a progressive criminal justice research institute. Sixty-three percent of Bay Area voters supported the law, according to a poll conducted by the institute.
“Of course, COVID is here — it’s the pandemic of the time. Maybe we’ll be lucky enough and we’ll get a vaccine and this will be transitory,” he said. “But addiction is here to stay.”
That doesn’t mean it will be smooth sailing for AB 362. “This is not an easy bill under any circumstances,” said David Stammerjohan, Eggman’s chief-of-staff.
Indeed, a previous version of the bill that passed both houses in September 2018 was eventually vetoed by then-governor Jerry Brown, who cited concerns about a potential legal clash with the Trump Administration. Stammerjohan said it was “extraordinarily challenging” even getting it to Brown’s desk then — and it will remain difficult in the months to come.
The bill was tabled in May because Senate leadership referred it to three separate committees for review — a longer process than other state legislation — after the bill passed in the Assembly last May. But the proposed law is under consideration again in the Health Committee as of late June, with Oakland added as a city to pilot the program.
Although Eggman’s last attempt was scuttled by Brown, Gov. Gavin Newsom said he was “open” to the idea during his campaign.
“We’re hopeful there’s a different outcome with Gov. Newsom,” said Catie Stewart, a spokeswoman for Sen. Scott Wiener, who co-authored the bill. Generally, Stewart said, Newsom has proven to be “more progressive than Jerry Brown on this kind of stuff.”
Moreover, a federal judge ruled in February that a Philadelphia nonprofit would not violate federal law by opening a safe consumption site. The U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania appealed immediately.
Nevertheless, the ruling prompted Mayor London Breed and Supervisor Matt Haney in March to introduce city legislation that would authorize safe consumption sites here. Despite U.S. Attorney David Anderson warning San Francisco officials that he would “enforce federal law” if the sites were opened, the Board of Supervisors passed the ordinance unanimously in late June.
The local ordinance sets up a permitting system for nonprofits to set up the sites, establishes operating standards — such as sanitation, the requirement of medical personnel and education materials — and deprioritizes criminal drug penalties for people who accept a referral to the facilities.
Additional political will came when state Attorney General Xavier Becerra this month joined nine state attorneys general in an amicus brief supporting Philadelphia’s bid to open the site in the appeals case. “California has always been a trailblazer,” Beccera said on July 6, “and we’re committed to doing what it takes to keep our communities healthy and safe.”