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Bill to legalize ‘safe injection’ sites in California heads to Newsom’s desk

Public health advocates helped drive a bill that would create sites for drug users to use in a supervised and safe setting.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — A bill to legalize safe injection sites to address public health crises like the spread of HIV and drug overdoses has passed through both houses of the California Legislature. 

Written by state Senator Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco, Senate Bill 57 calls for supervised injection sites modeled after facilities active in some American cities for decades. Multiple studies indicate the sites can reduce overdoses from addictive substances.

Supervised injection facilities would allow people to inject or smoke drugs while under medical supervision in sterile conditions. The sites would not allow the exchange of illegal narcotics and are hoped to bring down overdoses caused by substances like fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine and prevent the spread of diseases like hepatitis and HIV.

If approved, San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles could operate the sites, which would also allow people to access addiction treatment and health resources.

It’s an initiative which harm reduction advocates have been requesting for years. Nonprofits in the state such as the HIV Education and Prevention Project of Alameda County have already been working to create mobile sites to provide clean syringes and safe disposal of used syringes, offer free HIV and hepatitis C testing and address growing overdose crises like that seen in San Francisco. 

The California Society of Addictive Medicine (CSAM), which represents physicians who care for people with substance use disorders, also sponsored the legislation to call attention to what they say is a need for safe service centers to help prevent overdoses and provide medical information to people struggling with addiction. 

Opoid-related deaths recorded in Alameda County through 2020, as recorded by the state's opioid overdose monitoring dashboard. (HIV Education and Prevention Project of Alameda County / Courthouse News)

More than 10,000 people in California and more than 100,000 people nationwide died of an overdose on the streets, at parties or at home, according to NPR. There were 191 fatal overdoses from opioid drugs in Alameda County in 2021, according to the state Department of Public Health’s overdose dashboard. This number does not include non-fatal overdoses requiring the use of the medication Narcan, used in emergency situations to treat opioid overdoses.

“If Governor Newsom signs this bill into law, he will not only save uncounted lives from unnecessary death but will also create a pathway into treatment for thousands of Californians for whom there is currently little hope of recovery,” said David Kan, past president of CSAM, in a statement.

Women Organized to Respond to Life-Threatening Diseases (WORLD), a nonprofit prevention organization based in Oakland, posted on Twitter that the law is needed because “safe consumption sites will save so many lives in California. As an organization conducting outreach daily in Oakland, we see firsthand how many people will benefit from these proven treatment and prevention programs.” The group did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Wiener took to Twitter to note New York City opened its safe consumption sites last year. “They'’ve been a success,” he wrote. “So much so that Mayor Adams wants them open 24 hours so public drug use doesn’t increase when they close. These sites work.”

According to Politico, Newsom pronounced himself “very, very open” to the policy while campaigning in 2018, unlike his predecessor Governor Jerry Brown who vetoed a similar bill. San Francisco has a proponent in Mayor London Breed — although her recently picked replacement of ousted District Attorney Chesa Boudin, Brooke Jenkins, has called for harsher penalties for drug users and dealers on the streets of the city’s Tenderloin district. 

Senate Republicans, who all voted no on SB 57, want Newsom to veto the bill. 

Senate Republican Leader Scott Wilk of Santa Clarita called the bill "one of the most dangerous pieces of legislation that I’ve seen sent to the governor," adding, "Leaving people on the streets in squalor, rather than getting them help, shows zero compassion."

If the bill takes effect, piloted sites would operate through Jan. 1, 2027.

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