Would drug facility be shot in the arm?

Valerie Schwartz started shooting heroin just before her 14th birthday.

“Nobody twisted my arm,” she said, holding an unlit, unfiltered cigarette outside the Women’s Building in the Mission district Thursday. “I was curious.”

Now 54, Schwartz has been clean for five months. It’s not the first time — she has struggled with heroin addiction for the last 40 years. She is also battling MRSA — a drug-resistant, often-deadly bacteria — and is using a wheelchair.

On Thursday, Schwartz shared her story with a packed room of health officials to voice her support for what is sure to raise a national firestorm — creating a government-sponsored facility in San Francisco where users can inject drugs, including heroin, methamphetamine and crack cocaine, to battle The City’s high incidence of fatal drug overdoses.

The discussion was spurred by the Thursday symposium, co-sponsored by the San Francisco Department of Public Health, on the only such “safe injection” facility in North America, a four-year-old Vancouver site where an estimated 700 intravenous users per day self-administer narcotics.

At these facilities, addicts are allowed to bring drugs and shoot up under the supervision of a medical staff. “We are exploring the pros and cons of this,” said Grant Colfax, director of HIV prevention for the Department of Public Health. “Our main goal is to get drug users into treatment.”

Alex Kral, director of the Urban Health Program for the research institute RTI International, said there are 18,000 injection-drug users in San Francisco. About 80 percent of them use heroin, he said, whilethe rest use methamphetamine and crack cocaine.

According to San Francisco Fire Department Capt. Niels Tangherlini, about one in every seven calls to San Francisco paramedics from July 2006 to July 2007 was a drug overdose.

Along with Vancouver, nearly 30 other cities across the globe operate such safe injection sites. No facility exists in the U.S., experts said. This is the first time San Francisco has considered it, said Hilary McQuie, of the Harm Reduction Coalition, an advocacy group for alternative drug treatments.

Supporters of the sites say they reduce crime, the number of discarded syringes on the streets and the number of addicts shooting up in public. Critics, however, say they send the wrong message and could increase drug use.

“It could exacerbate the problem,” said Howard Epstein, spokesman for the San Francisco Republican Party. “I think it will mean that people who are saying, ‘Boy, it’s going to be tough, I got to go hide, now I can just go down there to do it.’ It takes the pressure off them to clean up their act. It’s acceptance.”

Epstein also said finding an appropriate location would be a difficult task. So far, the idea is only in the discussion phase — no proposals have been approved and no sites have been identified.

“It’s really not a black or white issue,” said Katie Bouche, with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. “People are going to inject whether they do it safely or not. Needle exchange started as a radical idea when it came up.”

The City’s users

18,000 injection-drug users in San Francisco

80 percent of S.F.’s addicts use heroin; others use meth and crack cocaine

More than 60 percent are homeless

9 in 10 have hepatitis C

8 in 10 have hepatitis B

3 in 10 have soft-tissue infections, such as abscesses

1 in 8 overdose each year

1 in 10 have HIV

– Source: RTI International

Wire services contributed to this report.

arocha@examiner.com

Voice your opinion and vote in our poll at examiNation SF: How do you feel about your tax dollars funding a facility for users to shoot drugs?

Bay Area NewsLocal

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Demonstrators commemorated the life of George Floyd and others killed by police outside S.F. City Hall on June 1, 2020.<ins></ins>
Chauvin verdict: SF reacts after jury finds ex-officer guilty on all charges

San Franciscans were relieved Tuesday after jurors found a former Minneapolis police… Continue reading

San Francisco Unified School District Board member Faauuga Moliga, right, pictured with Superintendent Vincent Matthews on the first day back to classrooms, will be board vice president for the remander of the 2121 term. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Faauuga Moliga named as school board vice president to replace Alison Collins

The San Francisco school board on Tuesday selected board member Fauuga Moliga… Continue reading

Legislation by Supervisor Rafael Mandelman would require The City to add enough new safe camping sites, such as this one at 180 Jones St. in the Tenderloin, to accomodate everyone living on the street. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
City would create sites for hundreds of tents under new homeless shelter proposal

Advocates say funding better spent on permanent housing

An instructor at Sava Pool teaches children drowning prevention techniques. (Jordi Molina/ Special to the S.F. Examiner)
Indoor city pools reopen for lap swimming and safety classes

Two of San Francisco’s indoor city pools reopened Tuesday, marking another step… Continue reading

A construction worker rides on top of materials being transported out of the Twin Peaks Tunnel as work continues at West Portal Station on Thursday, August 16, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
SFMTA’s poor track record on capital projects risks losing ‘public trust’

Supervisors say cost overruns and delays could jeapordize future ballot revenue measures

Most Read