Gavin Newsom vetoes supervised drug consumption sites in SF, LA

Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that would have authorized pilot programs where people could use drugs under the supervision of trained personnel in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles, a blow to a battle long standing to fight overdose crises in cities.

In his veto letter, Newsom said the unlimited number of sites the legislation would have allowed could lead to “unintended consequences”, citing “aggravated drug use problems”. He ordered his Health and Human Services Secretary and local officials to return to the Legislative Assembly with detailed plans for a “really limited pilot program”.

The most recent veto is a setback for many San Francisco officials who pushed to open these sites for years to limit overdose deaths, but waited because federal law still prohibits them and the law of the State does not provide protection for medical providers who operate the sites. . But San Francisco could still go ahead with opening a site after City Attorney David Chiu released a statement following Newsom’s veto who said he would support the opening of a non-profit site.

“To save lives, I fully support a nonprofit organization moving forward with New York’s model of overdose prevention programs,” Chiu said in the statement.

In New York, a nonprofit that has run two unauthorized sites since November without legal repercussions has seen thousands of visits and canceled 400 overdoses.

Spokespersons for two San Francisco nonprofits that run overdose prevention programs — HealthRight360 and the AIDS Foundation — said Monday they were willing to run a site, but needed help. location and funding, either from the city or, as in New York, from 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 January 2028. It would have protected medical professionals who worked at these sites from charges criminal under any drug law and prohibited professional commissions. to revoke their licenses. Any site would be required to have a public consultation process, provide security, create a “good neighbor” policy and commission an impact study.

Political insiders have speculated that Newsom’s unspoken political ambitions to run for president in 2024 — which he denied — might have scared him off from signing the bill due to political perceptions inside. national scale. Newsom ran ads in Florida targeting another potential frontrunner, Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and set himself up as a fighter for Democratic values, fueling speculation.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco who drafted the bill, pledged in a statement Monday to keep the movement going despite Newsom’s reversal of the state law.

“Today’s veto is tragic,” Wiener said. “Every year this legislation is delayed, more people die of drug overdoses – two a day in San Francisco alone.”

Local advocates have rallied around these sites for years as the number of drug overdose deaths rises. Since the start of 2020, more than 1,600 people in San Francisco have died of drug overdoses. Supporters point to site surveys In other countries and the United States to argue that the sites will save lives without increasing crime in surrounding areas.

But the sites are being pushed back by opponents who say they allow illicit drug use instead of focusing on offering or requiring treatment, cracking down on drug dealers and reducing supply . Advocates respond that people already use drugs — and die doing so — and that supervised consumption sites can connect people to treatment. Participants would receive their own supplies at the sites, but would bring their own medications.

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

“It is possible that these sites will help to improve the safety and health of our urban areas, but if carried out without a solid plan, they could defeat this objective,” reads the letter. Newsom. “These unintended consequences in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland cannot be taken lightly. Worsening drug abuse problems in these areas is not a risk we can take.

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

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

“Glad to see the governor vetoing this. People struggling with addiction need help, not a legal place to shoot,” said Senate Republican Leader Scott Wilk, of Santa Clarita ( Los Angeles County), in a statement. “I look forward to working with the Governor to convince Democrats in the Legislature that a compassionate approach to addiction is best achieved through medical and mental health treatment.”

Proponents of supervised consumption sites have dismissed the empowering narrative and argue that the sites would help address residents’ complaints about public drug use. A review of 22 studies at overdose prevention sites found they could reduce the risk of death and improve access to care while “not increasing crime or public nuisance to the surrounding community”.

“There is no evidence that unintended consequences have existed at over 100 sites around the world, and there is plenty of evidence to show that we can do this safely and in a way that saves lives. “said Assemblyman Matt Haney, another San Francisco Democrat who co-wrote the bill.

With his veto, Newsom will face strong criticism from residents of San Francisco, where he was previously mayor.

Vitka Eisen, CEO of HealthRight360 who is recovering from 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 details or evidence of his concerns, and that he had known for two years that the bill was coming, so he could have raised his concerns sooner.

Wiener said the state doesn’t need “additional studies or task forces to determine if safe drinking sites are effective,” instead pointing to studies from sites around the world for three decades without deaths. by recorded overdose.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said the veto was “incredibly disappointing,” but she appreciated Newsom’s leadership to convene health care experts to create a detailed pilot model, and she would work to make it happen. urgently, “because people’s lives depend on it”.

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

“It’s disappointing,” Breed said in a statement, “but we remain committed to building on the city’s response to drug overdoses to address 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 advance innovative strategies with our city departments and community partners, as we continue conversations at the federal level,” Breed added.

Breed said last year she was “committed” to opening a site, and the board of supervisors even approved the purchase of a building on Geary Street that could house her.

In New York, funding for other harm reduction programs has increased, freeing up private funds from foundations to fund the overdose prevention site, HealthRight360 spokesman Gary McCoy said. San Francisco has yet to say whether it would do the same or allocate city funding to support any site.

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

“Unlike the Governor, I am determined to save lives however I can, so we will keep moving forward,” she said.

Mallory Moench (her) is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @mallorymoench