Drug War

Attempts to Build a Safe Injection Site for San Francisco Drug Users Pushed to 2020

Lawmakers struggle to pass a bill protecting operators from arrest and prosecution.

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A new effort by California lawmakers to permit a safe injection facility to be built in San Francisco has been put on hold until next year apparently due to struggles getting it through the State Senate.

Safe injection facilities (SIFs) are centers where drug users who have nowhere else to go (often very poor or homeless) can safely use without fear of arrest under the monitoring of caregivers who can prevent or respond to overdoses. There have been successes in other countries using these sites to save lives and reduce the harms of overdoses and threats of disease transmission, but none openly operate in the United States (there is, however, a secret one), thanks to our punitive drug war, which threatens operators with arrest and prosecution.

San Francisco leaders would like to build SIFs in the city to help deal with the significant problem they have of homeless people injecting drugs in public. To reduce the risk that site operators would be prosecuted, last year state lawmakers crafted a bill that would guarantee that people running a permitted SIF in San Francisco wouldn't be arrested by local or state police. That bill passed through both the state's Assembly and Senate, but when it got to Gov. Jerry Brown, he vetoed it. In his veto letter, he argued that the state needed to have the power to coercively force mandatory treatment on people addicted to drugs.

Brown is no longer governor and new Gov. Gavin Newsom has said he's open to the idea of allowing a SIF in San Francisco. So a new version of the bill was drafted, A.B. 362, and was reintroduced in February. The bill, similar to the previous version, would allow San Francisco to build injection sites without fear of civil liability and criminal sanctions from the state, so long as the program is actually authorized by local government.

The bill passed the Assembly in late May, 44–26, but now, surprisingly it's stuck in the Senate. It's been sent to three separate committees for evaluation, and on Wednesday the bill's authors canceled a hearing in the Senate. SF Weekly reported that due to concerns that they don't have the votes in the Senate (it passed by just four votes in the Senate last year), they're going to push the bill to 2020 in the hopes of building alliances.

San Franciscans are largely supportive of launching the first safe consumption site in California. In January, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and Dignity Health conducted a poll on San Francisco voters, which uncovered that 77 percent believe overdose prevention programs are a solution to many of the health crises seen on our streets. One of the largest local supporters of the facilities is the San Francisco AIDS Foundation — which operates several needle exchange sites throughout the city. On Thursday its staff expressed "deep disappointment" in the postponement of the bill, and launched a petition to encourage Sacramento to move it forward faster.

If the bill eventually passes, unfortunately the city will still have the federal government and Department of Justice to deal with. A U.S. attorney in Philadelphia is taking the city to court to try to get a federal judge to rule that a SIF they're proposing there would violate federal "crackhouse" statutes.

It seemed as though there might have been some possible interest in federal lawmakers in some reforms here. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D–Wash.) had introduced an amendment to an appropriations bill that would have stopped the Department of Justice from spending money trying to fight states and cities from establishing SIFs. Seattle is also attempting to build SIFs there. But Jayapal has since withdrawn her amendment and her office did not respond to request for comment about the amendment.

For more, watch this Reason mini-doc on the efforts to build a SIF in Philadelphia:

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