If San Francisco attempts to move forward with supervised injection facilities, where people addicted to drugs can safely shoot up, it will have to do so without the state government's blessing.
Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown has vetoed a bill from lawmakers that would authorize the city and county of San Francisco to create supervised injection facilities (SIFs). These sites, found in cities around the world, but not yet in the United States, give drug users a place to get high under the supervision of people who can assist in the event of an overdose, and can also help users access resources to help them transition to maintenance therapy or quit drugs altogether. Injection centers prioritize harm reduction over treatment and punishment, and studies show they save lives and money.
Which is why it's so unfortunate that Brown vetoed a bill to authorize San Francisco's SIF plan. The city has a massive problem with public drug use, and used needles and other drug waste are common in public spaces. City leaders had planned to open SIFs this month, but it hasn't happened. This bill, A.B. 186, was supposed to help the San Francisco get started by guaranteeing that people operating the facilities wouldn't be arrested by police.
To be clear, the bill did not authorize any tax dollars to be spent on these injection facilities. The plan has always been for the sites to be funded and operated by private non-profits. Californians were not being asked to subsidize drug use. This bill simply authorized San Francisco and its concerned citizens to move forward without threat of arrest. The plan has the support of San Francisco's civic leadership and mayor.
Nevertheless, Brown vetoed the bill. Part of the issue, he noted, was that California lacks the ability to protect the facility from the Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Agency. It's not just state law these facilities would run afoul of: the feds can come barging in and arrest everybody, something the U.S. Attorney of Vermont has threatened against Burlington leaders. California had a similar problem when it first legalized medical marijuana in the 1990s, and U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein recently warned flat-out in a New York Times op-ed piece that the DOJ would absolutely act against any attempt to open such a facility.
Brown makes note of Rosenstein's threats in his veto letter and says that it would be "irresponsible" for him to expose local officials and health-care providers to potential federal prosecution. That's understandable, though it's not like anybody is going to be forced to assume the risk. This bill would've simply provided protection from state and local law enforcement, and made no claims of immunity from the DEA or DOJ.
Besides, that's not the real reason Brown is rejecting the bill. He may see himself as a man of facts and science when it comes to climate change and environmentally friendly policies, but he's an anti-science blockhead when it comes to drugs.
Ultimately, what Brown really, truly wants here is to be able to force people to get drug treatment. It's plain as day in his veto letter: "Residential, outpatient and case management—all are needed, voluntarily undertaken or coercively imposed by our courts," he writes in his veto letter. "[E]nabling illegal and destructive drug use will never work. The community must have the authority and the laws to require compassionate but effective and mandatory treatment. AB 186 is all carrot and no stick."
Our decades-long drug war shows that the stick does not work; never has and—barring the kind of state-sanctioned violence against drug offenders in Southeast Asia—never will. Besides, the point of SIFs is not to make drug use less prevalent, but less deadly. These facilities save lives by preventing overdoses, and money by reducing the costs of emergency services required for enforcement and treatment. There are studies that back this up (a study that questioned the value of safe injection facilities was recently retracted due to flaws in the methodology).
Brown's belief that punishment and coercion are the best strategies for reducing drug use is simply not true. It's like saying we could end reckless driving by getting rid of seatbelts. But the point of seatbelts, like SIFs, is exactly the opposite of that. They are intended to take the sharp edge off unhealthy choices, and the alternative is more deaths.