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Newsom vetoes bill for safe drug-injection sites

California Governor Gavin Newsom said the four-year pilot program wasn't as well planned as could have been.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill to set up safe drug injection sites in three cities, citing "a world of unintended consequences."

Senate Bill 57, written by San Francisco Democrat Senator Scott Wiener, has been supported by many public health organizations including The California Society of Addictive Medicine and several nonprofits. It would have allowed “safe injection sites” where drugs could be administered under the supervision of medical staff at sterile facilities while also providing education about health resources and addiction services. 

Supporters cited multiple studies indicating these sites can reduce overdoses from addictive substances like fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine and prevent the spread of diseases like HIV and hepatitis. San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles looked to operate several safe injection sites through 2027.

The bill sat on Newsom's desk for weeks. In his veto message to the Legislature, Newsom wrote that while he supports harm reduction strategies, he is “acutely concerned” that safe injection sites would need strong local leadership and well-vetted operators to work. 

Gavin Newsom delivers his annual state-of-the-state speech (YouTube screenshot)

“The unlimited number of safe injection sites that this bill would authorize — facilities which could exist well into the later part of this decade — could induce a world of unintended consequences,” the governor wrote. “We should strive to ensure our innovative efforts are well planned, even when they start as pilots, to help mitigate the potential for unintended impacts.”

Newsom said he is instructing the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to meet with city and county officials to discuss minimum standards and best practices for safe and sustainable overdose prevention programs, and to return with recommendations for a more limited pilot program. 

State Senate Republicans all campaigned and voted against the bill. Senator Brian Jones, a Republican from Santee, called the veto "a victory in the fight to help people get off drugs and into treatment" in a tweet Monday.

Law enforcement applauded the veto as well. “This is clearly a challenging issue affecting our entire state and we will continue our efforts to protect our communities, but permitting ‘lawful’ drug use is not the answer,” the state’s Sheriffs’ Association head, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea, wrote in a statement supporting Newsom's decision. 

But the veto drew outrage from public health organizations and advocates across the state.

“We are incredibly disappointed and heartbroken that Governor Newsom has put his own political ambitions ahead of saving thousands of lives and vetoed this critical legislation,” said Jeannette Zanipatin, California state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, in a statement. More than 10,000 residents have died due to overdoses, she said, adding, “What we need is action. Without action, people are going to die.”

Laura Guzman, the senior program director at the National Harm Reduction Coalition, said the three cities had already done the work and had the local support for the sites. 'This veto leaves entire communities of people who use drugs, the majority of them unhoused, without an essential lifesaving tool," Guzman said.

Wiener said in a statement Monday that the state is rejecting an “extensively studied strategy” after eight years of planning to tackle drug addiction and save lives, that has been used in other states and cities like New York.

“We don't need additional studies or working groups to determine whether safe consumption sites are effective,” Wiener said. “We know from decades of experience and numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies that they work. Safe consumption sites have been in operation around the world for approximately 30 years, with great success and literally zero overdose deaths.”

He added: “We'll continue to fight for an end to the War on Drugs and a focus on drug use and addiction as the health issues that they are."

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