San Francisco would have neither the cover of the state nor federal governments, but city leaders are likely going to take Newsom’s cue to go ahead with a model pioneered by New York City to have safe drug-consumption sites that are run by non-profits.
On Monday, Governor Gavin Newsom surprised some — but not everyone — by vetoing Senate Bill 57, which would have authorized a pilot program for “safe-injection” or safe drug-consumption sites in three cities, San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles. While Newsom expressed support for such sites back when he was a gubernatorial candidate, after his predecessor Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill, the governor and former mayor of San Francisco appears to have done an about-face as he not-so-quietly begins preparing a presidential run.
The bill, in addition to giving the state imprimatur for sites that condone drug use in order to prevent overdoses, would have shielded medical professionals working there from losing their licenses or facing any state prosecution over their work.
In a veto letter Monday to state senators, Newsom writes, “I have long supported the cutting edge of harm reduction strategies. However, I am acutely concerned about the operations of safe injection sites without strong, engaged local leadership and well-documented, vetted, and thoughtful operational and sustainability plans.”
Newsom cited the “unlimited number of safe injection sites that this bill would authorize” through January 2028, saying this “could induce a world of unintended consequences.” While not specifying what these would be, he said, “We should strive to ensure our innovative efforts are well planned, even when they start as pilots,” and he’s directed the Secretary of Health and Human Services “to convene city and county officials to discuss minimum standards and best practices” on creating these sites before giving his go-ahead.
The decision was no-doubt political, applauded by the likes of the San Francisco Police Officers Association and state Senate Republican Leader Scott Wilk. And citing how Newsom has liked to be ahead of the curve in progressive policies on gay marriage and gun control, Jessica Levinson, a political analyst and professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, tells the New York Times, “But if he signs this, the [attack] ads kind of write themselves: He becomes ‘Governor Heroin’.”
Former Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius, never exactly known for embracing progressive positions, tweeted his disapproval of the veto, with the hashtag “#politicsoverhealth.”
Terrible decision by Gov. Newsom to veto supervised injection sites. It sounds counterintuitive to let users inject illegal drugs in a safe spaces, but they save lives (immediately treat overdoses). And sites effectively encourage users to get treatment. #politicsoverhealth
— C.W. Nevius (@cwnevius) August 22, 2022
Sen. Scott Wiener, who authored the bill, said in statements on Monday, “Today’s veto is tragic. Each year this legislation is delayed, more people die of drug overdoses — two per day in San Francisco alone.” And, “We don’t need additional studies or working groups to determine whether safe consumption sites are effective… Safe consumption sites have been in operation around the world for approximately 30 years… [and they’re] a proven strategy to reduce overdose deaths, pressure on emergency rooms, and public drug use, while expanding access to drug treatment.”
Assemblymember Matt Haney, who co-authored the bill, similarly blasted Newsom, saying, “There’s no evidence that unintended consequences have existed in the 100-plus sites around the world, and there’s a lot of evidence to show we can do this safely and in a way that saves lives.”
San Francisco appears poised to go ahead and try, and to do using the help of non-profits as New York City has done — and the hope that federal prosecutions won’t follow. New York has two sites that have been running since November, without sigs of criminal prosecution looming, and they claim to have prevented 400 overdose deaths already, as the Chronicle reports.
“To save lives, I fully support a non-profit moving forward now with New York’s model of overdose prevention programs,” said City Attorney David Chiu in a statement Monday.
While funding still isn’t secured and will have to be private or come from the city, two non-profits have already stepped forward and agreed to run the sites, HealthRight360 and the SF AIDS Foundation.
Gary McCoy, a spokesperson for HealthRight360, said on Twitter, “My words wouldn’t be near as eloquent as the bullshit statement from [Newsom]… I’ll post when I have something adequate for all audiences.”
Mayor London Breed called Monday’s veto “disappointing,” “but we remain committed to building on the City’s drug overdose response to combat San Francisco’s street drug crisis, save lives, and help connect more people to treatment and services.”
Breed added, “The City will continue to explore how we can push forward innovative strategies with our City departments and community partners, while we continue conversations at the federal level.”
Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images