California on Wednesday moved closer to creating sites where people could legally use supervised drugs designed to prevent them from dying in the event of an overdose, despite objections from opponents who said the state would allow dangerous activities and illegal.
The Plenary will now consider allowing testing programs in Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco, more than a year after the proposal narrowly passed the state Senate.
“We know we are in a crisis of overdose deaths, and these are preventable,” said Democratic Senator Scott Wiener. “It’s a way to help keep people safe and actually help people get into treatment.”
Members of the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee pushed the bill forward by a 5-2 vote after hearing conflicting statistics about experiences in Canada, Europe, Australia and, more recently, two locations in New York.
There has not been a single overdose death at supervised sites, said Wiener and supporters of his bill.
But people are still dying around them, drawn to neighborhoods where drug use is openly sanctioned by the government, opponents have countered.
“There’s a magnet effect for people to come into the area,” John Lovell said, testifying on behalf of the California Narcotic Officers’ Association and several other police organizations.
“What they are proposing is the maintenance of dependency. … I think we need to embrace addiction recovery,” said Michael Shellenberger, author of a book called “San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities” and a no-partisan candidate for governor of California.
Clean needle exchanges were once also controversial, before becoming a widely accepted way to minimize the spread of HIV, hepatitis and other diseases that can be spread through sharing dirty needles, said Vitka Eisen, she -even a former heroin user. She now leads low-income healthcare provider HealthRIGHT 360 and sits on the boards of the California Council of Community Behavioral Health Agencies, the California Association of Drug and Alcohol Program Executives, and the National Council for Behavioral Health.
“In the face of a crisis, we need to do things differently,” she said, referring to the nationwide onslaught in opioid-related deaths, often fueled by the prevalence of fentanyl.
Governing bodies in each of California’s jurisdictions have already asked to be included in the testing program if Wiener’s bill becomes law. It would be up to them to go forward and to what extent. Testing programs would continue through 2028, and participating governments would be expected to share the cost of an independent study of the program’s effectiveness and impact on the community, planned by 2027.
Former Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, vetoed a more limited proposal in 2018, saying then, “Fundamentally, I don’t believe that allowing the use of illegal drugs at government-sponsored injection sites — without a corresponding requirement that the user undergo treatment — will reduce addiction.”
The new proposal divides the Assembly committee along party lines.
Democratic Congresswoman Mia Bonta, wife of California Attorney General Rob Bonta, co-authored the bill which called it “a potential opportunity for us to be able to fight the pandemic we face around drug addiction “.
California would “create an enabling program that allows people to continue to do what is very harmful and destructive, not only to themselves but to the general public,” Republican Congressman Kelly Seyarto said. The goal, he said, should be to “get them off drugs and get them out of this addiction” instead of allowing it.
Democratic Congressman Miguel Santiago said he too was skeptical, until he witnessed the open drug use on Skid Row in Los Angeles.
“You have to come to the conclusion that it’s better for them to use it in a facility where it’s at least supervised,” Santiago said. “It’s an attempt to create a safe place for people to use (drugs), to help them when they’re at their lowest and to prevent the worst from happening.”
The chairman of the committee, Democrat Congressman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, said he was initially “very worried” and fought the idea. But he had an uncle and a cousin who died of drug overdoses on the streets of San Francisco in the 1980s, when the family’s attempts at “tough love” failed to save them.
Safe injection sites may not be a perfect solution, Jones-Sawyer said, but “we have to move on and try something new.”