Editorial: SF needs its own safe consumption site

  • by BAR Editorial Board
  • Wednesday August 24, 2022
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Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed a safe consumption site bill August 22. Photo: Courtesy Governor's office
Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed a safe consumption site bill August 22. Photo: Courtesy Governor's office

Now that Governor Gavin Newsom has vetoed Senate Bill 57, which would have established safe consumption site pilot programs in San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles, the city has an opportunity to go its own way and establish such a facility. It should do so as quickly as possible, following the successful model that is up and running in New York City.

Newsom in the past had voiced support for safe consumption sites, where people bring their own drugs to the facility and use them under the supervision of staff, thus reducing the possibility of overdose deaths. However, it seems that politics got the better of him as he raises his national profile in preparation for a possible run for the White House in 2024. Drug users, after all, are not generally sympathetic constituents and he would not risk his political capital on them by taking such a bold step. Unlike when then-mayor Newsom led ahead of political opinion and ordered San Francisco officials to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004, cementing the community's support and jump-starting the march toward marriage equality and Newsom's political career in the process. SB 57's author, gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), has tried for years to get his safe consumption site bill signed into law; former governor Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill in 2018, during his last year in office.

Newsom's veto message expressed his concerns with the pilot program. "The unlimited number of safe injection sites that this bill would authorize — facilities which could exist well into the later part of this decade — could induce a world of unintended consequences," he wrote. "It is possible that these sites would help improve the safety and health of our urban areas, but if done without a strong plan, they could work against this purpose. These unintended consequences in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland cannot be taken lightly. Worsening drug consumption challenges in these areas is not a risk we can take." Of course, Newsom could have taken his concerns directly to Wiener during the bill's progression through the Legislature, and he likely would have accommodated the governor's request for a specific number of programs.

And let's be clear: overdose deaths in San Francisco have risen sharply since the onset of the COVID pandemic. There were 711 overdose deaths in 2020, and 640 in 2021. The city is on track to meet or exceed those numbers this year, officials have stated. In short, this is unacceptable in the city. A great benefit of supervised consumption sites, which have successfully operated in other countries for years, is that they offer an entry point into treatment if the person wants it. They provide sterile needles, which prevents transmission of HIV and hepatitis B and C. Indoor sites also reduce street-based drug use and improper syringe disposal, which is a problem in San Francisco that gets regular attention on outlets such as Fox News, and by the very Republicans Newsom has been trolling on social media.

After Newsom's veto, San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu voiced support for seeing a program established in San Francisco. "While I am disappointed SB 57 was vetoed, San Francisco must continue to work to address our opioid overdose crisis," Chiu stated. "To save lives, I support a nonprofit moving forward now with New York's model of overdose prevention programs."

What that might look like is unclear, but when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors returns from its August recess in a couple of weeks, it is clear that it should immediately set about starting a program, enlisting a nonprofit such as the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, which has expressed interest if it has the support of the city attorney and health department. "We very much want to add this to our continuum of harm reduction and substance use treatment services," Laura Thomas, director of harm reduction policy at the foundation, told us. It is uncertain whether the city could utilize a building it purchased last December in the Tenderloin that at the time was described as a potential site for a supervised consumption site. New York's programs, as we've reported, are operated by nonprofits and they do not utilize city space, a city attorney spokesperson pointed out. The two New York facilities, located in East Harlem and Washington Heights, were already operating as needle exchange sites and began allowing on-site consumption November 30, 2021, according to an announcement from New York Harm Reduction Educators, one of two nonprofits that merged to form a new organization dubbed OnPoint NYC. In the first three months of operation, staff at these sites were able to halt over 150 overdoses, according to an Associated Press report. New York's programs were started under the administration of former mayor Bill de Blasio. Current Mayor Eric Adams, who sees the benefit of these programs, now wants them to be open 24 hours a day (they currently close at 8 p.m.), according to a recent article in The City, because the clients tend to go to the subway stations after they close.

In his veto message, Newsom tried to put a positive spin on the situation, stating he is instructing his health and human services secretary "to convene city and county officials to discuss minimum standards and best practices for safe and sustainable overdose prevention programs." That seems like a stalling tactic, as harm reduction advocates already know what works. In San Francisco in 2018, Mayor London Breed, a strong supporter of the sites, toured a demonstration project that was open to the public of what a possible safe consumption facility might look like (no people were there using drugs), so city officials already have a good idea what is needed.

"I remain open to this discussion when those local officials come back to the Legislature with recommendations for a truly limited pilot program — with comprehensive plans for siting, operations, community partnerships, and fiscal sustainability that demonstrate how these programs will be run safely and effectively," the governor added.

Discussion with officials is fine, but we're past the point where action is needed. San Francisco District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston, who now represents the Tenderloin, tweeted his support for supervised consumption sites, writing that the city should follow the guidance of public health professionals. Wiener told us he's fully in support of Chiu's statement that a nonprofit step in. "The governor made a mistake yesterday," Wiener said.

It's now up to city officials to move past Newsom's veto and enlist a qualified nonprofit to get a safe consumption site up and running.

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