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California Assembly passes bill allowing safe drug use sites

A pilot program would allow major cities to open safe drug use sites for six years, if approved by Governor Gavin Newsom.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — After ardent debate, a majority of California lawmakers paved the way on Thursday for major cities to try to stem the tide of fatal overdoses on their streets by opening safe consumption sites where people can inject illicit drugs under medical supervision.

Federal law makes it illegal to run such places, but Senate bill 57 allows San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles to try out a six-year pilot program where they can operate sites that offer sterile hypodermic needles and syringes, as well as staff trained to prevent and treat overdoses.

“The cities included in this bill are in the midst of a terrible, horrific, escalating public health epidemic. In the last two years alone, over 1,500 people have died of opioid overdoses in San Francisco, that is nearly twice the number who have died of Covid-19. Many have died in public; on our streets, parks and benches,” newly elected Assembly member Matt Haney, a Democrat from San Francisco, said on the Assembly floor Thursday morning where the bill passed by a vote of 42-28.

Haney said he personally witnessed people die on the street in front of his apartment in the Tenderloin neighborhood.

“There is no doubt this bill will save lives by stopping overdose deaths and keeping people alive,” said Haney, who is carrying the bill for author state Senator Scott Weiner of San Francisco.

The safe consumption sites would also refer drug users to medical care and addiction services. Though the Department of Justice vowed to crack down on cities and counties that offer such sites under President Donald Trump, legislators said the threat of federal enforcement is unlikely under President Joe Biden. New York also opened a supervised consumption site last year after the feds blocked the opening of Safehouse, which would have been the first of such sites in the nation. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported the Justice Department is “re-evaluating" its stance on supervised injection sites.

Haney said that while it may be preferable for people to simply not use drugs, it’s better that they do it in a safe and clean environment where they can access treatment programs if they’re in the throes of addiction and going to use anyway. The program will end in six years and each jurisdiction will have to produce a peer-reviewed study on their results. “Overdose prevention programs bring the opioid crisis and drug use off our streets and parks and out of peoples’ doorsteps,” he said.

Assembly member Richard Bloom, a Democrat from Los Angeles, said he supported SB 57, as well as a similar bill that came up in 2019 that didn’t make it through the state Senate. Since then, he said, California has seen a “dramatic” rise in overdose deaths on the streets in his county. “Many of these people expire right on the sidewalk,” he said. "We can talk all day about how we would like people not to use drugs in the first place, of course. But we have a responsibility to reduce the harm these folks are exposed to."

Some opponents in the Assembly decried the law as enabling drug addiction.

Al Muratsuchi, a Democrat from Torrance, said mandated drug treatment and drug courts made more sense, citing then-Governor Jerry Brown’s veto message for a similar bill in 2018. “We need to not only increase funding for more drug addiction treatment programs so we can get people off of their addictions, but also we need to restore the drug courts that were working prior to the reduction of the incentives and penalties that effectively mandated treatment. I say let’s heed the wisdom reflected in Governor Brown’s veto message.”

Democrat Carlos Villapudua from Stockton said injection sites are not the answer to the crisis of overdoses — an issue with which he’s intimately familiar. “My brother died of an overdose. I took him to programs, even an hour away to San Francisco. Nothing helped.”

He said people addicted to drugs need more than a “revolving door” program.

"It’s not just about the addiction; it’s about when you get out, what's next. We let them loose, we don’t hold their hand. We need to do more of that. We need vocational programs to get them a job, that's the answer.”

Assembly member Tasha Boerner Horvath said she had reservations about voting for the bill at first "as a mom who thinks having these safe consumption sites actually encourages people to use drugs.”

But she said it was time to try something new. “The reality is, as my colleague pointed out, that people are using drugs. They are dying from drugs. So if we don’t do something different and we don’t at least let these cities who want local control to try this out try it, then we’re not doing our job today.”

The Democrat from San Diego County added it’s not something she wants for her jurisdiction, but “far be it from me to say what San Francisco should and should not do. If you’ve been on the streets of San Francisco you see it’s very different than what happens in Encinitas and I think we should give them a shot.”

The bill now heads back to the Senate for a concurrence vote, then to Governor Gavin Newsom's desk. Newsom has not indicated recently whether he would sign the bill, and a spokesperson said he does not comment on pending legislation.

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