Needles, sharps containers, metal tins for cooking heroin, alcohol wipes and fentanyl detection strips are just some of the items that would be available at a safe injection site. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Court ruling on Philadelphia safe injection site gives new hope for SF plans

A court ruling Wednesday that a Philadelphia nonprofit’s plan to open a safe injection site does not violate federal drug laws has given a boost to San Francisco’s long-discussed plan to open the facilities.

Mayor London Breed and other city officials celebrated the ruling, but it remains unclear how soon San Francisco will open a safe injection site, even as drug overdose deaths have increased in recent years.

“We will be working with the City Attorney to understand what this ruling means for San Francisco, because we need one or more of these sites in our city,” Breed said.

She called the ruling “a big deal for public health and addressing the drug crisis that we see every day on our streets.”

“Safe injection sites save lives,” Breed said. “They help prevent overdoses, reduce public drug use, prevent the spread of disease, and connect people to medical care that can help treat their addiction.”

There are about 150 supervised injection sites in 10 countries around the world, where people are allowed to inject drugs like heroin under medical supervision. But efforts to open them in the United States have so far proven unsuccessful.

State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who tried to pass state legislation legalizing safe injection facilities last year, also celebrated the ruling.

Wiener said he is committed to legalizing the facilities under state law by passing Assembly Bill 362, which was introduced by Assemblywoman Susan Eggman (D-Stockton), to protect those who operate and work in the facilities from prosecution.

The bill passed the Assembly this year and goes before the State Senate in January. Last year, then Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill and it put The City’s plans on hold. But Gov. Gavin Newsom has signaled he would back it.

“San Francisco can certainly proceed now, but it’d be best to remove state barriers,” Wiener told the San Francisco Examiner. “I will support however San Francisco chooses to proceed on this. I know the mayor and Board of Supervisors are deeply committed to the concept.”

Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents the Tenderloin and SoMa neighborhoods, where drug use is most common, expressed an urgency to open safe injection sites.

“We need to move forward immediately,” Haney said. “As we speak, people are shooting up on the streets of my district and overdoses are happening everyday — we need to get these people off the streets.”

Haney said he is now working with the City Attorney’s Office to draft legislation that would require The City to open a safe injection site “ASAP.”

Fatal drug overdoses in San Francisco spiked in 2017 and 2018, when there were 222 and 259, respectively. In 2016 there were 186.

Laura Thomas, director of harm reduction for the AIDS Foundation, said that the ruling sets “a really big precedent” and while it is legally limited to the jurisdiction where it was made, it should give The City “confidence if we are challenged by the federal government we will be able to win.”

Justice Department attorneys sued to block the nonprofit Safehouse from opening a safe injection site in Philadelphia, arguing that it violated a provision of the Controlled Substances Act, often referred to as “the crack house statute,” that prohibits owning a property where drugs are used.

But U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh found Safehouse’s plan does not violate the act. “The ultimate goal of Safehouse’s proposed operation is to reduce drug use, not facilitate it,” McHugh wrote in his ruling.

The San Francisco AIDS Foundation has supported opening safe injection sites and had discussed piloting a site at its Harm Reduction Center on Sixth Street before the state bill was vetoed.

Thomas said in light of the ruling she expected groups like the AIDS Foundation to reassess plans.

However, in absence of city-sanctioned action, Thomas said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if community members decided to take things into their own hands.”

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