SF needs safe consumption sites
At 50 to 100 times more powerful than heroin, fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, can be lethal if one miscalculates its potency. Eighty-nine people died from fentanyl overdoses in San Francisco last year. But nearly 1,700 opioid overdoses were reversed via the Narcan disseminated by the city.

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.”   

Julian Mark

Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

Join the Conversation

8 Comments

  1. Thanks for the article Julian it is well written and informative.. I think the non-profit/government split here is a bad way to go given existing performance and accountability issues for this ecosystem in general.

    But more to the point: Using street drugs is never ‘safe’. If we’re going to do something like this, we should be providing medical grade substances under medical supervision.

    https://transformdrugs.org/heroin-assisted-treatment-in-switzerland-successfully-regulating-the-supply-and-use-of-a-high-risk-injectable-drug/

    I support getting addicts help. As a part of a comprehensive mental health and addiction treatment program (especially for opiates) regular maintenance doses are (where needed and a part of the overall patient plan) a proven mechanism to reduce harm.

    Enabling addicts to just continue using dangerous substances – supervised or not — will not solve their problems. Without support they will still have to steal (or worse) to acquire their drugs and these street drugs will continue to be deadly. We need a comprehensive program that provides day and night care, mental health support, and eventually supportive housing and work programs.

    One typical argument I see is that the types of proposals in this article is ‘better than nothing’ or a ‘small step forward’. I think the opposite is true, these partial solutions allow for people to think they are helping without really solving the root cause. Over time, these disparate, unconnected programs end up undermining the entire argument for comprehensive mental and addiction services due to their lack of effectiveness.

    1. “We need a comprehensive program that provides day and night care, mental health support, and eventually supportive housing and work programs. ”

      I have been saying we need more Residential beds, offering differing levels of freedom to come and go depending on the individual’s situation.

      And then we need more low income housing that also houses services. These two things are the only way to help solve this problem. And anything else is just a tiny piece in a huge issue.

  2. ask our neighbor Mexico what they think about the drug use enabling policies of california and SF in particular. most the drugs come from and/or through Mexico resulting in an ever expanding spiral of violence effecting every strata of the mexican society especially the bottom portion. it just wreaks havoc to an unbelievable level. sure, some of the mexican problems and issues connected with drug use in the US are house made such as rampant corruption, paternal policies, genocide, etc. but certainly it has a reinforcing effect.
    as a result of our ‘liberal’ drug policies mexican citizens cannot live in peace and have to seek shelter where? in the US, especially in california. well, that’s were at the same time the mexican crime cartels expand their empire, right here on the streets of san francisco.
    making shooting up easier is insane! this a totally wrongheaded policy and plays directly into the hands of the cartels.

  3. Portugal has dealt with their drug issues a long time ago, by decriminalizing the consumption and offering voluntary help for those that want to end their addiction. Also addictions need to be recognized as the symptom of an underlying much larger social problems. Such as lacking healthier coping skills and healthier outlook on life. The drug war is in part to fill the pockets of the vast Prison Industrial Complex set up to essentially victimize and acquire slave labor from the general population, especially of darker skin color (remember the dumping of crack cocaine in LA? Full report was published by Gary Webbs.)

    The solution for drug issues has been there, the problem is the puritanical ideologies that fails to take into account the modern reality, that coupled with greed(the most destructive element that’s been destroying this country.)

  4. Normalization of serious drug use in the name of harm reduction is nonsense. “Safe injection sites” are tax payer sponsored shoot-up drug dens.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *