(BCN) — A bill legalizing safe consumption sites for drug users in California passed the state Senate, meaning it’s soon to arrive on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk for final approval, Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, announced Wednesday. According to current state and federal law, it is a crime to knowingly and willfully allow people to take illegal drugs in a space. Senate Bill 57 would drop the state prohibition and launch pilot consumption sites in San Francisco, Oakland and the city of Los Angeles, in efforts to combat the worsening drug overdose crisis in the state.
In San Francisco alone, the city saw 711 fatal overdoses in 2020, and 640 in 2021. City health officials expect to see similar or higher numbers of overdoses in 2022. Wiener, the lead author of the bill, said overdose prevention programs are nothing new in some parts of the world. Europe, Canada and Australia have had success supervising people in facilities for decades without a single overdose death reported, he said.
And in the United States, Rhode Island and Philadelphia have run safe consumption sites for a few years. New York City also recently launched two safe consumption sites, and they reported that they prevented over 150 overdoses in their first three months of operation.
“Our local communities are in crisis with people dying of overdoses on our streets, and they are coming to us and asking us for permission to do this. They’re asking us for permission to save lives. It is our responsibility as a state to support our local communities and to let them try this out,” Wiener said.
Wiener said the work behind this bill comes from a massive coalition of advocates who have been fighting for these sites long before he was an elected official. The bill was initially introduced almost seven years ago by Susan Talamantes Eggman, who tried three times to pass supervised drug consumption legislation in 2016.
“Had we passed this bill and had it been signed into law years ago, as it should have been, how many lives would have been saved? How many people who died on the streets on San Francisco, Oakland and LA would be alive today?” Wiener said.
Wiener said there will always be controversy about drugs, despite the progress made in addressing addiction as a health issue, rather than a criminal one. Yet there’s a “knee-jerk reaction” when it comes to safe consumption sites, he said. Opponents argue these sites would enable people to keep using drugs without seeking recovery, and fear this will only further promote illegal activity.
“Some people say well, we shouldn’t do this site, we should do treatment. No, we should do both,” Wiener said. “Safe consumption sites are a proven way of getting people into treatment.”
To Vitka Eisen, CEO and president of heath service organization HealthRight 360, safe consumption sites are a part of maintaining connections to people who use drugs. HealthRight 360 and a group of other addiction services, health care providers and harm reduction advocates co-sponsored SB 57. About 50 percent of people who enter treatment leave prematurely and relapse, Eisen said. The more someone cycles through addiction services, the more at risk they are for accidental overdose, she said.
“We see this bill as pretty simple — you catch people and maintain connections with them throughout their entire course of care. Whether that’s in treatment, before treatment or after treatment — maintain connections with people so they don’t die,” Eisen said.
She said the narrative of drug use in San Francisco has “gotten pretty ugly” as residents grow frustrated with the conditions of their neighborhoods. It’s pushing some to call for authoritarian, war-on-drugs-esque policies to address the crisis, “as if that’s never been tried before,” she said.
“We ask the governor to please act from a place of grace in its fullest sense of the term, and not from disgrace. We ask for the governor to allow us to care for people with dignity, and bring them to health and care and most importantly, to prevent death,” Eisen said.
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State Assemblymember Matt Haney, who previously represented San Francisco’s Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods on the Board of Supervisors, said the city’s status quo of drug use and homelessness is an “absolute travesty.”
There is nothing more radical or extreme than allowing people to die on the street without intervention, he said.
“Not only are we losing people who are dying, entire neighborhoods are suffering,” said Haney. “We have children and families who are walking down the street and there are people who are shooting up and abusing drugs all over the neighborhood.”
As proponents await the bill’s approval, Wiener said the pressure is on Newsom to act quickly and address the ever-growing issue of drug overdoses.
“A veto of SB 57 would send such a negative, toxic message to the rest of the country about where the rest of California is on drug use, addiction, overdoses and on the war on drugs,” Wiener said.
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