A state bill that would allow San Francisco and seven other counties to open up safe injection sites failed to pass the California Senate Tuesday night by two votes.
However, state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco — a co-author of the bill — intends to ask the Senate to reconsider the proposal before the legislative session ends Friday.
“We all want people to get off of drugs,” Wiener said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “To my colleagues I would just ask, ‘How the heck are we doing in terms of getting people off of drugs?’ I think pretty darn poorly when you look at the absolute explosion of injection drug use in cities, in rural areas, in California, in states across the country.”
He added, “The approach we’ve been using is a failure.”
The most recent estimates of drug overdose deaths in the U.S. shows a 21 percent increase between 2015 and 2016, with 64,070 people dying of drug overdoses compared to the 52,898 recorded overdose deaths in 2015, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
San Francisco has been studying opening up safe injection sites and could possibly become the first city in the nation to open a sanctioned one as early as 2018, but that effort will likely be derailed if the state bill doesn’t pass. A safe injection task force, established at the urging of Board of Supervisors President London Breed, is expected to recommend in a report this month that San Francisco open such facilities.
Assembly Bill 186, introduced by Assemblywoman Susan Eggman, D-Stockton, and co-authored by Wiener, would provide legal protections for San Francisco, along with seven other counties, to open safe injection sites. The Assembly passed AB 186 in June by a 41 to 33 vote.
Republican senators blasted the bill on the Senate floor Tuesday when Wiener called for the vote. Wiener managed to pick up 19 votes for it by Tuesday night, two shy of the required 21 votes to pass.
But Wiener is expected to have the Senate reconsider the bill before Friday’s deadline, when the legislative session ends. If approved by the Senate, Gov. Jerry Brown would need to sign it into law.
Wiener built support for the proposal on the Senate floor by highlighting that it doesn’t mandate the eight counties actually open the facilities, there is no state funding tied to it and studies show they work.
Safe injection sites allow drug users to inject drugs under supervision of medical professionals.
“I want to just really emphasize that this is not new,” Wiener said of safe injection sites. “The United States is behind other countries. There are over 100 programs around the world that have implemented safe injection sites. And in all of these programs there has never been a single reported case of a lethal overdose in one of these centers.”
Wiener said studies have proven that the sites reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis, reduce litter of syringes and guide people into treatment programs.
He also said the sites would free up emergency personnel from responding to drug overdose reports. “When you stop sending paramedics on runs to respond to overdoses, for example, in public restrooms, abandoned cars, or homeless encampments you free them up to respond more quickly to other emergencies like heart attacks or strokes,” Wiener said.
Wiener dismissed concerns that the sites would encourage drug use. “People are already injecting drugs. But they are doing it on the streets,” Wiener said. “Why not do it in a safe sterile environment off of our streets?”
Republican senators sided with law enforcement groups like the California Police Chiefs Association, California State Sheriffs’ Association and the California District Attorneys Association, which are opposing the bill.
State Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Tehama, argued that the sites wouldn’t end drug use. Nielsen said “there is little hope” someone who uses the sites would “dedicate themselves to rehabilitation.”
State Sen. Mike Morrell, R-Rancho Cucamonga, said, “One of our jobs on the floor is to promote virtue and not encourage vices like drug use.”
“I don’t think we should be enabling people here with broken hearts and souls,” Morrell said.
State Sen. Ted Gaines, R-El Dorado Hills, said safe injection sites would “create sanctioned shooting galleries for street heroin.”
“Let’s not tell people who are slaves to drugs that the best we can do for them is to provide a ‘clean, well-lighted place’ for them to throw away their lives,” Gaines said.
Other Democratic state senators spoke in favor of the the bill.
Sen. Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, said new strategies are needed to address the drug epidemic. “We’ve tried things that don’t work,” Atkins said. “It makes sense to try pilot programs.”
Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, said he had visited a safe injection facility in Sydney, Australia, and saw it was effective. “We keep losing our young folks. The epidemic continues to grow,” Lara said. “We have to treat this issue differently. Because what we’ve been doing does not work.”
Under AB 186, San Francisco along with Alameda, Fresno, Humboldt, Los Angeles, Mendocino, San Joaquin and Santa Cruz counties could operate a safe drug consumption program for those 18 or older, until Jan. 1, 2022. Those involved in the programs couldn’t be charged with drug offenses and those operating the program would have to provide annual reports detailing syringes distributed, demographics of drug users, overdoses and referrals to treatment programs.
How the California Senate voted Tuesday on Assembly Bill 186
Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica
Sen. Toni Atkins, D-San Diego
Sen. Jim Beall, D-Campbell
Sen. Steven Bradford, D- Gardena
Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles
Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa
Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina
Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles
Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo
Sen. Bill Hueso, D-San Diego
Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara
Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens
Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino
Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg
Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles
Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel
Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Oakland
Sen. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont
Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco
Sen. Joel Anderson, R-El Cajon
Sen. Patricia Bates, R-Laguna Niguel
Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte
Sen. Anthony J. Cannella, R-Ceres
Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield
Sen. Ted Gaines, R-El Dorado Hills
Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda
Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa
Sen. Mike Morrell, R-Rancho Cucamonga
Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton
Sen. Janet Nguyen, R-Garden Grove
Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Tehama
Sen. Anthony Portantino D-La Cañada Flintridge
Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside
Sen. Jeff Stone R-Riverside County
Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford
Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Antelope Valley