Mayor Ed Lee faces criticism for opposing supervised injection facilities

From a needle exchange program to supporting the distribution of naloxone to reverse overdoses, San Francisco has a reputation of leading the way on game-changing policies for addressing drug addiction.

But San Francisco may settle for a spectator role instead of becoming the first city in the U.S. to open a supervised injection facility, after Mayor Ed Lee took a hard stance last week opposing the idea.

Supervised injection sites provide drug users with a safe place indoors to inject heroin or methamphetamine under the watch of health professionals, who also connect them to various services. City health officials estimate 22,000 people inject drugs in San Francisco.

The mayor’s position conflicts with a growing trend in other cities, including Seattle and Ithaca, N.Y., where elected and public safety officials have begun to discuss opening supervised injection sites as a means to address the drug epidemic. San Francisco’s Sheriff Vicki Hennessy distanced herself from the mayor’s position Thursday when she told the San Francisco Examiner the injection sites are “worth considering.”

Lee’s stance may also conflict with what San Francisco residents want — at least according to one recent poll.

Lee announced his opposition last week amid a war of words among city leaders over how to best address The City’s homeless crisis. The crisis reached a tipping point in recent weeks when Public Works crews swept away hundreds of tents pitched along Division Street and near Showplace Square.

Supervisor David Campos last week rebuked the mayor for failing to address The City’s homeless crisis, and called for the creation of places to safely inject drugs.

The mayor, however, quickly condemned that idea.

“We have a rigorous disagreement over allowing people to inject heroin and meth to literally destroy their bodies and their minds in a city-funded shelter,” Mayor Ed Lee said at the March 8 Board of Supervisors meeting. “We should instead focus on expanding successful residential drug treatment facilities.”

The mayor’s spokesperson said Thursday that Lee stands behind his comments.

But supporters of supervised injection facilities contend the mayor has it all wrong. They point to facilities in Vancouver and Europe as examples of the model’s effectiveness in reducing drug use, decreasing the risk of spreading diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C, preventing overdose deaths and connecting people with services.

“I strongly think that [supervised injection sites] can help address some of the challenges that San Francisco is facing right now,” Laura Thomas, California’s deputy director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a group working to decriminalize drugs, told the San Francisco Examiner.

“People really want to see homeless people in particular linked to services in mental health care to housing, and I think supervised injection services have been proven in places like Vancouver to help with exactly those problems,” Thomas said.

Vancouver offers the only two supervised injection facilities in North America. There are about 100 in 66 cities worldwide, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.

Now San Francisco residents appear to support localizing the effort.

Seventy-two percent of 400 registered voters in the California 11th Senate District, which includes The City and part of northern San Mateo County, supported “providing supervised injection services,” according to a David Binder Research poll conducted between March 1 and 6 and commissioned by Drug Policy Action.

That doesn’t mean residents will embrace facilities near their residences, however. San Francisco voters supported legalizing medical marijuana, but neighborhoods often oppose dispensaries.

“If people are concerned about public drug use and improperly disposed-of syringes in their neighborhood, those are the neighborhoods where it makes most sense to open them,” Thomas said.

Those who work hands-on with homeless residents are supportive of supervised injection sites as well.

For the past two decades, Father Christian River Sims has led a street ministry where he provides services to homeless residents predominantly along lower Polk Street and in the Haight neighborhood. He says he hands out 10,000 syringes a month to drug users on the street.

He has also provided memorial services for what he estimates have been 1,500 homeless deaths related to overdoses in the past two decades, and said injection sites could prevent the dangers associated with shooting up on the streets.

“Injection sites is the best thing you can do in The City,” Sims told the Examiner on Thursday. “The reality is these guys will go where they feel safe and where they can find support. If they have a safe place to go to inject, they will go there and inject, especially if they get clean needles and if they have food there for them. They will go.”

Sims called the mayor’s position on supervised injection sites “conservative,” noting that The City lacks adequate treatment facilities and housing.

“People are not going to just stop using drugs. This is reality,” Sims said. “[Lee’s] hard-line approach is not the best in the world, no.”

Joshua Sabatini

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