Will California Beat Seattle in Building a Safe Drug Injection Facility?

Lawmakers consider bill that lets eight counties experiment with safe spaces to use illegal drugs.


Diana Eller / Dreamstime

California lawmakers are close to passing a bill allowing a handful of counties to experiment with safe injection sites, facilities where people addicted to drugs can safely get high with professional oversight.

Seattle is trying to become the first community in the United States to do this, but opponents have launched a battle at the ballot box.

If AB 186 is passed and signed by the governor, eight California counties or the cities within them may approve or establish safe drug consumption areas. Los Angeles and San Francisco are among the approved areas. The authorization to operate the facilities sunsets on Jan. 1, 2022.

The bill neither mandates these communities allow these facilities, nor does it provide any funding for them. Citizens in Bakersfield, for example, will not be paying taxes to operate a facility in the Bay Area. If citizens and local officials in Humboldt County (one of the counties authorized in the bill) decide they don't want a safe injection facility, they're under no obligation to provide one.

The bill authorizes communities that so choose to create drug consumption spaces where people can consume drugs under the watch of health care professionals. Facilities will not provide drugs, but professionals can provide sterile needles (and dispose of them), prevent fatal overdoses, provide references to addiction treatment services, and educate participants about HIV and hepatitis.

Neither clients nor employees at these drug consumption sites will be subject to arrest under state law for the drug use. The bill, however, comes into conflict with federal law, as the state Senate's Public Safety Committee analysis notes. The people who own and operate the facility could face federal arrest and charges, not just the users.

If AB 186 passes, it seems likely that the Department of Justice might have something to say about it, given Attorney General Jeff Sessions desire to fight the drug war by maximizing federal criminal sentences for drug crimes and cracking down on doctors who prescribe opioids.

The bill passed the state's Assembly in June by a vote of 41-33. It has made it through both the Senate's Health Committee and Public Safety Committee and awaits a full Senate vote by next week.

If it passes, San Francisco is likely poised to be the first community to consider it. San Francisco put together a task force in April to develop recommendations for creating safe injection facilities.

Assembly member Susan Eggman, a Democrat who represents Stockton and other parts of San Joaquin County, introduced AB 186. Logan Hess, a legislative aide for Eggman, tells Reason these pilot communities were picked because they already have a history of using naloxone as a way of reversing opioid overdoses, and data shows, like many other communities, they're nevertheless struggling with the problem.

That AB 186 was written pretty loosely was a deliberate choice, Hess explains. It does not tie these communities to a particular model of operation. It doesn't tell cities or counties that it must be a non-profit organization, or a hospital, or operated by a public health agency. Participants will make that call.

"One of the reasons we didn't want to be too prescriptive is that certain models might not make as much sense," Hess says. While the injection site in Vancouver, British Columbia, tends to be touted as a role model—it's currently the only site in North American and is Seattle's inspiration—Hess notes that there are other types of operations out there that might be better suited for particular communities.

But that matters only if the law gets past the Senate. The bill is opposed by the California Police Chiefs Association, the California State Sheriffs' Association, and the California District Attorneys Association (along with several other smaller law enforcement organizations and unions).

David Stammerjohan, Eggman's chief of staff, notes that they face a close fight in the Senate. Given the Democratic Party domination of California's government, the Assembly vote should be seen as close, and they're not certain whether Gov. Jerry Brown will even sign the bill into law should it pass.