Physicians who treat people with substance use disorder in California are among those urging Governor Gavin Newsom to sign legislation, SB 57, that would permit Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland to pilot safe consumption sites (SCS). Newsom has until August 22 to make a decision.
On August 16 Glenn Backes, a public policy consultant with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, hosted a media call with David Kan, a former president of the California Society of Addiction Medicine, and Randolph Holmes, the medical director of the Los Angeles Centers for Alcohol and Drug Abuse.
“They are people who have been marginalized—there are a lot of strikes against them—and the idea behind SB57, the real evidence, is that this provides an opportunity, number one, to prevent fatal overdose, which is everybody’s goal above all,” Dr. Kan said on the media call. “But most importantly it opens the door to have good and healthy interactions with health care staff, to invite them to come into treatment.”
“We’re hoping that the consensus in the public health field, the medical field and the treatment field will carry the day.”
Advocates initially expressed optimism that Gov. Newsom would sign the bill, which passed the California legislature on August 1. But he has appeared to waver since then: The San Francisco Chronicle, citing sources close to the governor, reported that he had become wary of the political consequences, especially as rumors continue to fly that he may run for president in 2024. Jerry Brown, the former governor of California, vetoed a similar bill in 2018 because the legislation did not mandate people into treatment.
“We’re hoping that the consensus in the public health field, the medical field and the treatment field will carry the day,” Backes said in the press call. Newsom has very little time, he continued, to decide “whether he will follow the science and allow these to be tested in California. The bill has narrow guard rails—requires a local vote, requires an independent evaluation on the impact of public safety and public health—and sunsets in five years. So it’ll be closely watched. If there are any problems, both the local governments and the state government will have an interest in interceding to address any problems that come up.”
Jeannette Zanipatin, the California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), told Filter that she was “surprised by Newsom’s indecision at this point.”
“We are doing everything in our power to help him decide,” she said.
A spokesperson for Gov. Newsom’s office told Filter that “we typically do not comment on pending legislation.”
Safe consumption sites (also known as overdose prevention centers), are relatively ubiquitous in other parts of the world, including Australia, Canada and Europe. They allow people to use state-banned drugs in their facilities; should somebody overdose, staff are on-hand to administer naloxone and offer other means of support. The overdose crisis has only worsened since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, and California recorded around 10,000 overdose deaths in 2021.
Should Newsom sign the bill, California would become only the second state with legal SCS in operation. In 2021, Rhode Island passed a similar legislation to launch a now much-delayed pilot program; not long afterwards, in December, New York City opened the country’s first two sanctioned SCS. Since then, the facilities have reversed hundreds of overdoses.
“A veto will mean people will die who don’t need to die.”
Although SB 57 is seen as imperfect by some advocates—Zanipatin previously noted to Filter that the legislation only covers the next five years and permits the opening of the SCS in just a handful of jurisdictions—it could be a model for other states looking to follow suit.
“Based on all available research in programs that have existed for 30 years in Australia, Europe and Canada, we expect to have less death, less public disorder problems, more people in treatment,” Backes said on the press call. “The research is overwhelmingly positive on these questions. We’re in the United States, where there has been a drug war, and questions like this can be dragged into the culture war, but in terms of the public health, medical and treatment fields, there is no controversy.”
“A veto will mean people will die who don’t need to die,” he added. “Who should not die.”
Photograph of Gavin Newsom by JD Lasica via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0
The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, previously received a restricted grant from DPA to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.