New law will allow for safer drug injection sites in Oakland, SF

Oakland and San Francisco may soon become two of the first cities in the country to pursue an audacious strategy to control drug overdoses – secure injection sites where users can shoot in a protected setting.

Senate Bill 57, passed by the state legislature this month, would allow two Bay Area cities and Los Angeles to open experimental facilities where users can consume illicit drugs supervised by people trained to reverse an overdose. Users will bring their own medicines but will be provided with clean supplies like needles.

Oakland and San Francisco already have free needle-exchange programs, and San Francisco offers a serious center where drug users can ride high safely, but SB57 will take those measures a step further. The injection pilot program will run until 2028.

There are about 165 safe-injection sites operating in 10 countries around the world, and New York City opened the first two in the US last year.

Advocates say the facilities will save lives, while opponents worry they are unlucky to host any neighborhoods.

“These sites are one piece of the puzzle,” said Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, who introduced the bill. “So instead of people shooting in the streets and dying of overdoses, they can use drugs in a safe, clean setting and not die.”

Overdose deaths have increased in recent years, Growing an estimated 16% in California as of February, according to preliminary year-over-year data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Massive, shameless drug use has become a major political flashpoint in San Francisco, where voters recalled Progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin earlier this year amid complaints that he was too permissive. In Alameda County so far this year, the Sheriff’s Office Coroner’s Bureau has listed illegal drug use as the primary cause of death in 112 cases. An official cause is still pending in many of the recent deaths.

Tracy McCray, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, doesn’t think allowing drug use is the answer.

“These locations are nothing more than approved drug dens that will negatively impact residents and businesses large enough to be adjacent to these sites,” McCray said in a statement. “Local government leaders who throw up their hands and allow illegal drugs and drug use in our neighborhood need to be next to one of these and the misery they are sanctioning experience.”

Supporters have been trying for years to legalize safe injection sites in California. Former Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill in 2018 that would authorize such sites in San Francisco. But Governor Gavin Newsom has indicated in the past that he is receptive to the idea.

If the bill passes, it would be up to the Oakland City Council — and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, LA City Council and LA County Board of Supervisors — to opt in by passing an ordinance to open a site.

In Oakland, City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bass supports the idea. She drafted an ordinance in 2019, which was then passed by the full council, to add Oakland to state law that sought to authorize safe injection sites in San Francisco. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff also backed the move, saying it would “save lives and reduce damage.” But she won’t be the one to lead such a project – her time as mayor ends in November.

San Francisco has been trying to open a safer injection site for some time, and SB57 will help ease the way by addressing “challenging legal issues,” according to an emailed statement from the city’s Department of Public Health.

Newsom’s office declined to comment on the pending legislation, saying the bill had not yet reached the governor’s desk. When that happens, he will have 12 days to sign or veto it.

If Newsom approves the bill, it would require all safe-injection sites to offer their customers access or referrals to addiction treatment, medical care, mental health support and other social services.

The problem is that those services are already over-taxed and have fewer resources, said Dr. Noah Aboellata, CEO of Roots Community Health Center in Oakland. He said both short-term detox programs and long-term residential treatment programs lack potential.

“It still serves a need,” Aboellata said of the safe-injection sites. “I think the concern would certainly be whether there are enough resources out there to be able to refer people.”

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