Drugs

San Francisco Just Got Another Step Closer to Having a Safe Injection Site

The city could be the first in the nation to adopt the internationally proven harm reduction intervention.

Inside the InSite supervised drug consumption site.
Photo Credit: Vancouver Coastal Health Authority

With an assist from the state legislature, the city of San Francisco is moving quickly to become the first in the country to operate an officially sanctioned safe injection site for hard drug users. The State Senate on Tuesday approved a bill that would allow the city to open several sites as part of a three-year pilot program.

The measure, Assembly Bill 186, sponsored by Assemblymember Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton) and co-authored by Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), passed the Assembly last year, but now must go back for a concurrence vote after changes were made in the Senate. Once re-approved by the Assembly, the bill will head for the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown (D).

While there are no sanctioned safe injection sites in the U.S., there are more than a hundred operating, primarily in European countries (Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg, Spain, Denmark), but also in Australia and Canada. They have been heavily researched and found to be a proven harm reduction intervention. Safe injection sites are linked to reduced rates of HIV and Hep C transmission, overdose death prevention, reduced public injections, reduced numbers of discarded needles, and an increased number of people entering drug treatment.

Under the bill, the pilot safe injection sites must meet specific criteria, including providing a "hygienic space supervised by health care professionals… where people who use drugs can consume pre-obtained drugs, sterile consumption supplies, and access to referrals to substance use disorder treatment."

"People are injecting drugs whether or not we intervene," said Wiener in a statement. "Safe injection sites provide people with an opportunity to inject in a clean, safe environment, with healthcare personnel available to prevent overdoses, and with an opportunity to offer people addiction, healthcare, housing, and other services.

"AB 186 is a bill that asks one specific policy question—should we keep trying what has failed for decades or give San Francisco the choice to try something that we know saves lives, reduces disease, and saves money?" said Assemblymember Eggman. "The opioid epidemic has ravaged communities up and down the state and all across the country. This bill provides a path for taking it on as the health crisis that it is."

"We have already lost too many people to overdose in this country," said Laura Thomas, interim California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, which helped guide the bill through the legislature. "I’m grateful to the State Senate for understanding the urgent necessity to take action, and for giving San Francisco the green light to move forward and save lives. We’ve been talking about the need for these services in San Francisco for over a decade. It’s time to take action."

New San Francisco Mayor London Breed is ready to move forward. She's announced plans to open a model safe injection site at the Tenderloin's Glide Memorial Methodist Church at the end of the month in a bid to quell NIMBY concerns among local residents.

"I understand the concern, but what I’m most concerned about are the complaints I get about needles on the streets," Breed told members of the media last week. "We are talking about a needle exchange, medical services and treatment on demand, so the point is to try and change how we deal with this. Just because we don’t want to see it—people who sadly struggle with drug addiction—doesn’t mean that it’s just going to disappear."

After the Assembly vote this week, Breed said it was necessary. "The conditions of our streets are unacceptable—the needles, people shooting up publicly," she told local CBS affiliate KPIX News on Wednesday. "I am so excited. It’s just another step further to getting us where we need to be in order to open one here," said Breed.

Lt. Gov. (and former San Francisco mayor) Gavin Newsom, who will most likely be the state's next governor, said he could get behind the concept, too. "I'm open to it," he said. "I think it's a novel strategy."

While safe injection sites have strong state and local support, they are likely to run afoul of federal law. Even if the city and state create a place where heroin and other drugs can be more safely ingested, federal drug laws make no provision for such activities. Mayor Breed seems undeterred, though.

"The president might crack down on us. So be it," Breed said. "I’m here to do a job, and this is part of my job."

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The Drug Policy Alliance is a financial supporter of Drug Reporter.

 

 

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Phillip Smith has been a drug policy journalist for the past two decades. Smith is currently a senior writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute