Mayor London Breed, who attended a safe injection site simulation at Glide Memorial in 2018, supported the opening of such centers during her mayoral campaign. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Bill allowing SF to open safe injection sites fails to win approval

Facilities seen as way to address drug overdoses, reduce spread of disease

San Francisco had pinned its hopes on a state bill passing this year that would let cities open sites where people can inject drugs under supervision to address a rise in overdose deaths, but the proposal has again failed to pass in the California legislature.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, one of the bill’s co-authors, said the proposal “did not move forward this year due to the significant reduction in bills in light of the COVID-shortened legislative session” but he planned to reintroduce it when the legislature reconvenes in December. That means the earliest it can now become law is January 2022.

The legislation was tabled in July while it awaited approval by the Senate Health Committee.

Backers of safe injection sites nearly had the victory they were looking for in 2018, when the California state legislature approved a bill that would have permitted San Francisco to open them, but then-Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it.

Supporters hoped Gov. Gavin Newsom would support safe injection sites, but that won’t be tested this year. A similar bill also suffered a setback last year.

“I am heart-broken and deeply disappointed that this bill has been allowed to die,” Joe Hollendoner, CEO of San Francisco AIDS Foundation, said in a statement. “A majority of San Franciscans support these services and the legislature has failed to do what is necessary to keep countless people alive.”

Safe injection sites are San Francisco’s answer to rising overdose deaths. Mayor London Breed made it one of her campaign promises to open these facilities, which are shown to reduce the spread of HIV infections and prevent fatal overdoses where they operate in other countries.

But she has said The City needs the protection of state law before proceeding. The Trump administration has vowed to prosecute those who open them.

Linda Mantel with Glide Harm Reduction demonstrates how to make a safe cooking tin for heroin use at a safe injection site simulation. Public health workers say the sites are being developed as a way to decrease drug-overdose deaths and to reduce the spread of diseases. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

In February, Breed joined Supervisor Matt Haney in the Tenderloin to announce legislation that would prepare The City to permit safe injection sites, should the state law pass. The bill, AB 362, introduced by Assemblywoman Susan Eggman, D-Stockton, would have authorized safe injection sites in both San Francisco and Oakland.

At the time of their announcement, health data showed a sharp rise in overdose deaths from cocaine, methamphetamine or opioids with 222 in 2017, 259 in 2018 and at least 330 in 2019.

Haney expressed disappointment Wednesday in the failure of the legislature to act on the bill as rising overdose deaths “are devastating our city and killing hundreds of people every year.”

“We clearly need new bolder solutions, like safe injection sites, and it’s shameful that the state isn’t taking this seriously,” Haney said. “They’ve done very little to address this epidemic at the state level, and keep kicking the can and refusing to take action on safe injection sites.

“S.F. now has the legal and policy framework to move forward locally,” he said. “All we need is for the state to lift the barriers that stand in the way. It’s really devastating that they keep refusing to take action and it will tragically lead to more people dying.”

Haney and Breed’s February announcement came after the nonprofit Safehouse in Philadelphia won a legal battle against the federal government to open the country’s first sanctioned safe injection site.

The U.S. District Court in Philadelphia ruled that Safehouse’s planned safe injection site would not violate a provision of the federal Controlled Substances Act commonly called the “crack house statute,” as federal prosecutors had argued. The judge ruled that “the ultimate goal of Safehouse’s proposed operation is to reduce drug use, not facilitate it.”

However, Safehouse has yet to open.

The federal government appealed the ruling and a stay was granted in late June, pausing the nonprofit’s efforts to open.

“The combination of the pandemic and the momentous protests following the killing of Mr. George Floyd make this the wrong moment for another change in the status quo,” the judge ruled when granting the stay.

This story was updated with additional information.

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