On August 22, just hours before a deadline, Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that would have legalized safe consumption sites (SCS) in major California cities. The decision came as a shock to the harm reduction advocates, drug policy reformers and politicians who have championed the legislation for close to a decade.
Until the last minute, they held out hope that Newsom would sign it—or at the least let the deadline expire, which would have meant the legislation, SB 57, automatically became law. They remained optimistic that the self-proclaimed progressive governor—who had said in the past that he was “very, very open” to SCS and in his letter explaining the veto bragged that he has “long supported the cutting edge of harm reduction strategies”—would make the right decision.
He did not, and like his predecessor, Jerry Brown, essentially claimed that the bill was incomplete.
“I am acutely concerned about the operations of safe injection sites without strong, engaged local leadership and well-documented, vetted, and thoughtful operational and sustainability plans,” Newsom wrote in his veto letter, adding that “the unlimited number of safe injection sites that this bill would authorize—facilities which could exist well into the later part of this decade—could induce a world of unintended consequences.”
“We are incredibly disappointed and heartbroken that Governor Newsom has put his own political ambitions ahead of saving thousands of lives.”
Newsom’s seeming reversal, one that came after reports surfaced that he was wavering, has been largely interpreted in the light of his political aspirations—as a signal of a man, weighing a presidential run in 2024, who’s worried about how a right-wing narrative of sympathy to people who use drugs might unfold on the national stage.
“We are incredibly disappointed and heartbroken that Governor Newsom has put his own political ambitions ahead of saving thousands of lives and vetoed this critical legislation,” Jeanette Zanipatin, the California state director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), said in a press statement. “Despite the Governor’s remarks, LA, San Francisco and Oakland have already designated this a priority by authorizing the programs locally and have been standing ready to implement them quickly. We have already engaged local stakeholders in a robust process and they have taken active steps towards implementation in order to be part of the pilot SB 57 would have put in place. We don’t need additional processes. What we need is action. Without action, people are going to die.”
The bill, which would have allowed Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland to pilot SCS over the next five years, could have set up a model for other states to follow suit. California would have become the second state after Rhode Island to have such a program, a common overdose prevention strategy in places like Australia, Canada and Europe. At an SCS, people can use state-banned drugs; if someone overdoses, staff and peers are available to administer naloxone and offer other means of support. Since New York City opened up the country’s first two sanctioned SCS in December, hundreds of overdoses have already been reversed—even during a time when the crisis has only been getting worse.
“Today’s veto is tragic,” California State Senator Scott Weiner, who authored the bill, said in a press statement. “For eight years, a broad coalition has worked to pass this life-saving legislation. Each year legislation is delayed, more people die of drug overdoses—two per day in San Francisco alone.”
In defiance of Gov. Newsom, San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu said that he would fully support moving forward with an SCS in the city.
Photograph of Gavin Newsom by Thomas Hawk 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.