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San Francisco Drug Consumption Sites Push Ahead Despite Veto

Gov. Gavin Newsom stopped a bill that would have allowed pilot programs across the state to establish sites for supervised drug use. Now advocates are looking for ways around the veto.

(TNS) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that would have allowed pilot programs where people could use drugs under the supervision of trained staff in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles, a blow to a long-fought battle to tackle the cities' overdose crises.

In his veto letter, Newsom said the unlimited number of sites the legislation would have allowed could induce "unintended consequences," mentioning "worsening drug consumption challenges." He directed his Health and Human Services secretary and local officials to come back to the Legislature with detailed plans for a "truly limited pilot program."

The most recent veto is a setback for many San Francisco officials who have pushed to open these sites for years to curb overdose deaths, but have held off because federal law still prohibits them and state law doesn't provide protections for medical providers running the sites. But San Francisco could still move forward with opening a site after City Attorney David Chiu released a statement following Newsom's veto that said he would support a nonprofit opening a site.

"To save lives, I fully support a non-profit moving forward now with New York's model of overdose prevention programs," Chiu said in the statement.

In New York, a nonprofit that has been running two unsanctioned sites since November without legal repercussions has seen thousands of visits and reversed 400 overdoses.

Spokespeople for two San Francisco nonprofits that run overdose prevention programs — HealthRight360 and the AIDS Foundation — said Monday they are willing to run a site, but need a location and funding, either from the city or, as in New York City, private donors.

The law would have allowed San Francisco, Oakland and the county and city of Los Angeles to host supervised drug consumption sites until Jan. 2028. It would have shielded medical professionals who worked at such sites from criminal charges under any drug laws and prohibited professional boards from revoking their licenses. Any site would be required to have a public input process, ensure security, create a "good neighbor" policy and commission a study of the impacts.

Political insiders speculated that Newsom's unspoken political ambitions to run for president in 2024 — which he has denied — could have scared him off signing the bill because of the political perceptions nationally. Newsom has been running ads in Florida targeting another potential front-runner, Florida's Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, and set himself up as a fighter for Democratic values, fueling speculation.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco who wrote the bill, vowed in a statement Monday to keep the movement going despite Newsom shooting down the state law.

"Today's veto is tragic," Wiener said. "Each year this legislation is delayed, more people die of drug overdoses — two per day in San Francisco alone."

Local advocates have rallied for these sites for years as the death toll from drug overdoses mounts. Since the start of 2020, more than 1,600 people in San Francisco have died from overdoses. Supporters point to studies of sites in other countries and the U.S. to make the case that the sites will save lives without increasing crime in the surrounding areas.

But the sites face pushback from opponents who argue they enable illicit drug use instead of focusing on offering or requiring treatment, cracking down on drug dealers and reducing supply. Advocates respond that people are already using drugs — and dying doing so — and supervised consumption sites can connect people to treatment. Participants would get clean supplies at the sites, but would bring their own drugs.

In his veto letter, Newsom said he has "long supported the cutting edge of harm reduction strategies" but said the unlimited number of sites allowed by the bill "could induce a world of unintended consequences."

"It is possible that these sites would help improve the safety and health of our urban areas, but if done without a strong plan, they could work against this purpose," Newsom's letter read. "These unintended consequences in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland cannot be taken lightly. Worsening drug consumption challenges in these areas is not a risk we can take."

Former Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill in 2018. Newsom, a candidate for governor at the time, said then he was open to a pilot program.

Opponents feared the sites would become magnets for drug activity, and Republican leaders in the California Legislature had urged Newsom to veto the legislation.

"Glad to see the governor veto this. People struggling with addiction need help, not a legal place to shoot up," Senate Republican Leader Scott Wilk, from Santa Clarita ( Los Angeles County), said in a statement. "I look forward to working with the governor to convince Democrats in the legislature that a compassionate approach to addiction is better done through medical and mental health treatments."

Supervised consumption site supporters dismissed the enabling narrative and argue the sites would help address resident complaints about public drug use. A review of 22 studies on overdose prevention sites found that they may reduce the risk of death and improve access to care while "not increasing crime or public nuisance to the surrounding community."

"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," said Assembly Member Matt Haney, another Democrat from San Francisco who co-authored the bill.

With his veto, Newsom will face harsh criticism from locals in San Francisco, where he was formerly mayor.

Vitka Eisen, CEO of HealthRight360 who is in recovery for drug addiction, called Newsom's letter a "bull— veto message" that was a way of saying, "I don't want this on my watch." She said the letter lacked specifics or evidence for his worries, and he's known for two years that the bill was coming, so could have reached out earlier with concerns.

Wiener said the state doesn't need "additional studies or working groups to determine whether safe consumption sites are effective," instead pointing to studies from sites around the world for three decades with no recorded overdose deaths.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said the veto was "incredibly disappointing," but she appreciated Newsom's direction to convene health care experts to create a detailed pilot model, and she would work to do so urgently, "as people's lives depend on it."

San Francisco Mayor London Breed and the San Francisco City Attorney's Office supported the bill.

"This is disappointing," Breed said in a statement, "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.

"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," Breed added.

Breed said last year that she was "determined" to open a site, and the Board of Supervisors even approved the purchase of a building on Geary Street that could host it.

In New York City, funding for other harm reduction programs increased, which freed up private dollars from foundations to fund the overdose prevention site, said HealthRight360 spokesperson Gary McCoy. San Francisco has not indicated yet whether it would do the same or allocate city funding to support any site.

Laura Thomas, director of harm reduction policy with the AIDS Foundation, said her organization has been consulting with the health department about possible locations for any site and has even considered a mobile option.

"Unlike the governor, I'm determined to save lives however I can, so we'll keep moving forward," she said.

(c)2022 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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