Panel passes injection bill
by Liz Highleyman
Supervised drug consumption facilities took another step forward last week as a California Assembly committee voted to advance a bill calling for a five-year exemption from the state's controlled substance laws.
Supervised consumption services allow people to inject drugs under the watch of medical staff, reducing the risk of overdose deaths. Facilities provide clean syringes, preventing transmission of HIV and hepatitis B and C through shared equipment. They also reduce street-based drug use and improper syringe disposal, and offer clients an entry point for seeking medical care or addiction treatment.
On March 21 the Assembly Health Committee voted 9-4 in favor of Assembly Bill 186, introduced by lesbian Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton) and co-authored by gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco).
"This is the first time a bill of this type has passed a legislative committee, and it's one step more than we were able to take last year," Eggman told the Bay Area Reporter. "It shows how far California has moved away from treating drug addiction like a crime problem, rather than a medical one."
AB 186 amends existing laws that make it a crime to possess controlled substances or drug paraphernalia, or to maintain a place for the purpose of using or distributing drugs. It would allow cities or counties to authorize the operation of supervised injection services on a trial basis through January 2022, and would exempt people from criminal sanctions while using or operating an authorized facility.
The proposed legislation requires that facilities must be supervised by health professionals or other trained staff. They would provide sterile syringes and other injection equipment, but clients would bring their own drugs.
Advocates from San Francisco HIV organizations, including the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, Glide, and Project Inform, spoke in favor of the legislation at a lobby day preceding the health committee vote, according to Laura Thomas of the Drug Policy Alliance, speaking at a March 23 San Francisco Getting to Zero Consortium meeting.
AB 186 will next go before the Assembly Public Safety Committee, probably in late April, Thomas said. If it passes the Assembly, an equivalent bill will be considered in the Senate.
"Supervised consumption services make sense, have been proven to work, and would help San Francisco address a number of our challenges related to drug use," Thomas told the B.A.R. "We're excited to be moving forward with this in California."
SF could be among the first in U.S. to open a site
There are currently nearly 100 safe injection sites in countries around the world, including Canada, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Australia.
Vancouver's Insite – the first North American facility – served more than 6,500 clients in 2015. Since it opened in 2003 Insight staff have intervened in nearly 5,000 overdose incidents, resulting in zero deaths, according to Vancouver Coastal Health, which operates Insight.
San Francisco is among several cities considering supervised injection facilities in the United States, including Seattle, New York, Baltimore, and Boston. The Board of Health in King County, Washington, which includes Seattle, voted in January to approve two facilities. County health officer Dr. Jeffrey Duchin said they are expected to open within a year.
In February, San Francisco Board of Supervisors President London Breed called for the creation of a city task force to study supervised consumption. Originally the task force was proposed to last a year, but advocates are seeking to shorten the process to three months, Thomas said.
As the B.A.R. previously reported, San Francisco Health Director Barbara Garcia told a Board of Supervisors committee last December that she supports safe infection facilities. Mayor Ed Lee has indicated that he is also open to the idea.
"We must thoroughly assess whether the public health and safety benefits [of safe injection services] outweigh any negative impacts," Lee said in his January 26 State of the City address.
Research shows that a supervised injection facility in San Francisco could avert at least three new HIV infections and 19 cases of hepatitis C per year, Thomas reported at the Getting to Zero meeting. The facility would be expected to attract high-risk homeless and other marginalized individuals who are often not reached by HIV and other services.
"Even though injection drug use-related [HIV] transmissions are low, they are not going down," Thomas said. "In order to get to zero we have to bend that line down as well. I think it's entirely possible for us to get new HIV transmissions related to injection drug use to zero in this city, but it's going to take additional intensive interventions such as this."