Eight California counties may soon have the legal coverage to open up safe injection sites to address the opioid epidemic.
Of those counties, San Francisco is most prepared to open safe injection sites, possibly in early 2018.
A task force called for by Board of Supervisors President London Breed has studied opening safe injection sites and is set to recommend their opening in a final report expected for release in September.
But to see through the effort, Assembly Bill 186 — introduced by Assemblywoman Susan Eggman, D-Stockton — would need to pass the state Senate by Sept. 15, and subsequently be signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown. In June, the bill passed the Assembly in a 41 to 33 vote.
State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, a former member of the Board of Supervisors, is a co-author of the bill and is vowing to pass it on the Senate floor. “I look forward to getting it passed,” Wiener said during a Thursday news conference in Sacramento on the bill, which coincided with International Overdose Awareness Day.
“I am a passionate supporter of safe injection sites,” Wiener said. He noted that in the 20 years since he first moved to San Francisco, he has witnessed an “absolute explosion of public injecting of heroin.” He said the strategy of incarcerating people for drug use has failed, and the safe sites would help drug users in a “downward death spiral.”
Wiener said he has heard concerns from some residents about the sites, such as whether they will attract drug users or increase crime, but he countered that such concerns are already a reality.
“People are injecting in our neighborhoods right now,” Wiener said. “We should all much rather have these folks in a supervised healthy setting than out on our streets.”
Eggman attempted to pass the bill last year but couldn’t find the support for a committee vote. Since then, 3,600 Californians have died of drug overdoses.
Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. nearly tripled between 1999 and 2014, when there were 47,055 drug overdose deaths. In 2015, drug overdoses accounted for 52,404 U.S. deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The overdose deaths continue to increase. The New York Times reported in June that preliminary data showed overdose deaths likely exceeded 59,000 in 2016, a 19 percent jump since 2015.
“When we have an epidemic such as this, when overdose takes over from car accidents as the No. 1 cause of accidental deaths in the United States, it is time to do something different,” Eggman said.
The bill faces opposition from law enforcement groups like the California Police Chiefs Association and the California State Sheriffs’ Association.
The California District Attorneys Association opposes the bill, but San Francisco’s District Attorney George Gascon supports it.
Other supporters of the bill include the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for safe injection sites across the nation, as well as the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and HealthRight360.
While there is no sanctioned safe injection site opened in the U.S., an estimated 100 safe injection sites operate in 10 countries. Evidence shows they prevent overdoses and the contraction of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C and steer users into treatment programs.
“We are talking about people who are either often times homeless or near homelessness,” Eggman said.
“These are people who are already using IV drugs on the streets, on the beaches, in the playgrounds, in the neighborhoods. We know that these things work to get people into treatment to save lives.”
Under the bill, Alameda, Fresno, Humboldt, Los Angeles, Mendocino, San Francisco, San Joaquin and Santa Cruz counties could operate a safe drug consumption program for those 18 or older, until Jan. 1, 2022.
The bill would prohibit those involved in the programs from being charged with drug offenses. Those operating the program would have to provide annual reports detailing syringes distributed, demographics of drug users, overdoses and referrals to treatment programs.