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Safe injection bill awaits Senate vote

by Liz Highleyman

Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman
Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman  

A bill that would allow supervised drug consumption facilities in certain areas of California awaits a vote in the state Senate after clearing a major hurdle in the Assembly.

Assembly Bill 186, introduced by lesbian Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton), would permit exceptions to controlled substances laws, enabling local governments in eight counties â€" including San Francisco and Alameda â€" to authorize supervised injection facilities on a pilot basis.

"California is blazing a new trail toward a policy on drug addiction and abuse that treats it as the medical issue and public health challenge that it is, and not as a moral failing," Eggman said in a statement. "We are in the midst of an epidemic, and this bill will grant us another tool to fight it â€" to provide better access to services like treatment and counseling, to better protect public health and safety, and to save lives."

Drug overdose deaths are rising in California and nationwide, in part due to an influx of fentanyl, a drug far more potent than heroin. In 2014 there were more than 47,000 fatal overdoses in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"As overdose rates show no sign of slowing across the country, we need to consider bold, evidence-based public health interventions," said Monique Tula, executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition, which co-sponsored the bill.

Supervised consumption facilities offer a place to inject drugs under the watch of medical staff, cutting the risk of overdose fatalities. They provide clean syringes and other injection equipment to prevent transmission of HIV and hepatitis B and C. They also reduce street-based drug use and improper syringe disposal, and offer clients an entry point for seeking addiction treatment and medical care.

San Francisco is one of several cities vying to open the first supervised injection facility in the United States. Last month Board of Supervisors President London Breed announced the launch of the Safe Injection Services Task Force, which will study the feasibility of such services in the city over the next three months.

The California Assembly is the first U.S. legislative body to pass such a bill, though other jurisdictions are moving forward through other means. The Board of Health in King County, Washington (which includes Seattle) voted in January to approve two supervised injection facilities, which are expected to open within a year.

Gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who co-authored AB 186 with Eggman, is now introducing parallel legislation in the Senate.

"I'm thrilled that the Assembly passed this important public health bill, which gives us an additional tool to address the drug addiction we see every day on our streets," Wiener told the Bay Area Reporter. "I'll work very hard to move the bill through the Senate, and I look forward to working with my colleagues and advocates to make that happen."

Wiener's legislative aide, Jeff Cretan, said that the bill will start going through the Senate hearing process in the next few weeks, although it has not been referred to any specific committees yet. The deadline for getting Assembly bills through the Senate is September 15, he added.

Many advocates did not expect the bill to pass the Assembly this year, but it did so by the minimum margin of 41-33, with two Republicans joining the majority.

"I've been amazed at the support for this bill and this issue, and how much it's changed since last year, both in California and in San Francisco," Laura Thomas, deputy state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told the B.A.R. "It feels like people are starting to pay more attention to the rise in overdose deaths and are looking for better solutions. California is again leading the way, putting science and compassion ahead of fear and outdated stigma about drug use."



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