California’s Struggle for Safe Consumption Spaces Moves Forward

December 9, 2020

In California, the grassroots-led struggle for safe consumption spaces has taken a big step forward.

On December 7, state legislators seized the first day of their new session to introduce Senate Bill (SB) 57. The legislation would create a pilot program allowing certain Californian jurisdictions to sanction overdose prevention programs (OPP), as the bill terms them, that are proposed by local entities such as nonprofit organizations. It also would shield workers, participants and others involved in the OPPs from certain drug-related criminal charges.

The bill’s text enumerates the minimum requirements of prospective OPPs. They’re straightforward: provide a clean space and safer use equipment for people to use drugs; monitor participants for potential overdoses and provide care as needed; make referrals to other programs, like those for substance use disorder treatment and medical care; educate participants about needle use and disposal, and naloxone administration; and basic day-to-day procedures.

The special statute created if SB 57 becomes law only applies to three California jurisdictions: the City and County of San Francisco, the City of Oakland, and the County of Los Angeles. Politicians in these jurisdictions, which are already home to robust harm reduction programs, are voicing their support for the bill.

“The war on drugs has been an expensive, wasteful, racist failure,” said Oakland City Council President Rebecca Kaplan. “We need to adopt policies that prioritize public health and community healing.” Many other politicians’ comments can be found in the same press release.

Unsurprisingly, harm reductionists and substance use disorder treatment providers serving these municipalities are also on board. The bill is co-sponsored by a range of organizations, including the National Harm Reduction Coalition, San Francisco AIDS Foundation, Drug Policy Alliance*, California Association of Alcohol and Drug Program Executives, California Society of Addiction Medicine, HealthRIGHT 360, and Tarzana Treatment Centers.

Even if SB 57 becomes law, that’s no slam dunk for OPPs in California. Harm reduction organizations that seek to operate them will likely face NIMBY backlash—potentially similar to that which stopped the country’s first green-lit safe consumption space from opening in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania earlier this year.

Parts of the bill aiming to promote community accountability could lend themselves to anti-drug-user derailing. Jurisdictions approving a privately proposed OPP will need to provide an opportunity for law enforcement officials, public health experts and civilians to comment. Additionally, an approved OPP must establish a “good neighbor policy that facilitates communication from and to local businesses and residences, to the extent they exist, to address any neighborhood concerns and complaints.”

The struggle for California OPPs is just getting off the ground, and the stakes have never been so high.

“Authorizing overdose prevention programs is more urgent than ever,” said Laura Thomas, San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s director of harm reduction policy. “Hundreds more people have died of drug overdoses in San Francisco this year while we wait for this legislation to pass and get signed into law—four times as many San Franciscans have died of overdose as have died of COVID-19 this year. San Francisco wants and needs these services and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation is eager to implement them as soon as possible.”

*DPA previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.

Photograph of a Sydney, Australia SCS by Nigel Brundson

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