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Supporters rally for safe consumption spaces

by Liz Highleyman

San Francisco Board of Supervisors President London Breed<br>spoke at a May 22 rally about supervised drug consumption spaces, where she<br>announced the formation of a task force to study the issue. Photo: Liz<br>Highleyman
San Francisco Board of Supervisors President London Breed
spoke at a May 22 rally about supervised drug consumption spaces, where she
announced the formation of a task force to study the issue. Photo: Liz

More than 100 public officials, people who use drugs, and community advocates rallied outside City Hall Monday, May 22, in support of supervised drug consumption spaces where clients can use drugs safely under medical supervision.


At the rally Board of Supervisors President London Breed announced the launch of the Safe Injection Services Task Force, which will look at the feasibility of creating safe consumption services in San Francisco. It is expected to meet three times during the next three months.


"Today you can't walk from City Hall to Civic Center BART without seeing people shooting up in broad daylight," said Breed, who described losing a sister to a drug overdose. "I don't know if offering a safe place for people to use drugs is the right answer for our city and for helping this vulnerable population, but I know that our existing efforts simply aren't working and we need new approaches to treat and care for people with addiction."


The 15-member task force includes representatives from the Department of Public Health, the San Francisco Police Department, researchers and health professionals, service providers, advocates for people who use drugs and homeless people, and current and former injection drug users themselves.


"It's great to see this momentum for supervised consumption services," Laura Thomas of the Drug Policy Alliance told the Bay Area Reporter. "At the rally we heard stories from people for whom these programs could have made a difference in the past, and I'm hoping we can make that kind of difference for people who need it now."


DPA is one of nearly two-dozen organizations in the newly launched Yes to SCS California coalition, formed to advocate for supervised consumption spaces. Other participating groups include the SF Coalition on Homelessness, End Hep C SF, Glide, the Harm Reduction Coalition, HealthRIGHT 360, Project Inform, the Homeless Youth Alliance, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, the San Francisco Drug Users Union, Shanti Project, and St. James Infirmary.


Yes to SCS released new data this week from the National Public Drug Use Survey, showing that people who use drugs in public spaces in San Francisco were over three times more likely to have recently had an overdose, more than twice as likely to have visited an emergency room, and more likely to be homeless and under age 40 compared to those who use drugs in private spaces.


Drug overdose is a leading cause of accidental death in California and nationwide. In 2015 there were over 52,000 fatal overdoses in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – more than the number of motor vehicle collisions and gun homicide deaths combined. The San Francisco health department estimates that there are more than 22,000 people who inject drugs in the city and around 100 overdose deaths per year.


Supervised consumption facilities allow people to use drugs under the watch of medical staff, reducing the risk of overdose deaths. The facilities provide sterile needles, preventing transmission of HIV and hepatitis B and C. They reduce street-based drug use and improper syringe disposal, as well as offering clients an entry point for seeking addiction treatment or medical care.


"The reason we're here is because our friends are dead. Our family members pass on the streets, in bathrooms, in alleys," said task force member Holly Bradford of the San Francisco Drug Users' Union. "I see people on the streets, as you all do, injecting. At the needle exchange they say, 'I don't want to inject in front of children. I don't want families to see me injecting between cars.' Drug users are people and they care."


There are currently around 100 safe injection sites around the world in countries including Canada, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Australia. Vancouver's Insite – the first North American facility – served more than 6,500 clients in 2015. In the lead-up to the Harm Reduction International Conference this month in Montreal, health officials announced that two supervised consumptions sites will soon open in that city.


San Francisco is among several cities vying to open the first safer consumption facility in the U.S., along with Baltimore, New York City, and Seattle. Earlier this year the Board of Health in King County, Washington, which includes Seattle, voted to approve two facilities, which are expected to open within a year.


Recent research showed that a supervised injection facility similar to Insite in San Francisco could avert at least three new HIV infections and 19 cases of hepatitis C per year.


"Our research showed that if San Francisco was to implement one supervised consumption site similar to the one in Vancouver, the city would save $3.5 million annually by reducing HIV, HCV, abscesses, and overdoses, while increasing access to drug treatment," Alex Kral, an epidemiologist at RTI International and a member of the new task force, told the B.A.R.


But not everyone is enthused about supervised drug consumption.


"If this can save lives we're all for that, but again we're concerned what happens after these individuals inject drugs when they go back out into the neighborhood," San Francisco police Captain John Sanford, who oversees Park Station, told ABC 7 News.


Next week the full state Assembly will vote on Assembly Bill 186, coauthored by lesbian Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton) and gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), which would allow exemptions from laws that make it a crime to possess controlled substances or drug paraphernalia. The legislation, which would let a limited number of cities authorize supervised consumption spaces on a pilot basis, was approved by the Assembly Public Safety Committee and Health Committee earlier this year.


"For more than three decades this city has led the way for the rest of the country when it comes to supporting and caring for people living with HIV, and once again San Francisco is leading the way as city leaders consider opening safe consumption rooms for people who use drugs," Monique Tula, executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition, said at the rally. "It's past time to do this. As the nation's leaders for harm reduction, the city has to live up to its history and be bold as we move forward. The time to act is now."


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