San Francisco plans to open its first safe consumption site (SCS) by 2022. It would be the first such US facility on the West Coast, and represents the latest development in a national movement for overdose prevention and drug user-led care. As recorded overdose deaths in a 12-month period surpass 100,000 for the first time, pressure has been mounting across the country to authorize interventions like SCS.
On November 16, San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced plans to purchase a former Goodwill store in the Tenderloin district for an estimated $6.3 million. It would house behavioral health services, funded through a tax measure to address homelessness that the city approved in 2018.
If the purchase is approved by the legislative Board of Supervisors, the site could be used as the city’s first SCS, and open as soon as spring 2022. The city would partner with an as-yet-unnamed nonprofit to run the site.
“The mayor has been very clear about her desire to offer these services in San Francisco,” Laura Thomas, harm reduction director at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, told Filter. “So it’s a matter of the city figuring out how to do it. It’s more a matter of ‘when’ the city will open these services, not ‘if’.”
At least 712 people died of overdose in San Francisco last year—the highest recorded annual deaths to date, and more than three times the recorded number of residents who died of COVID-related causes.
“Ensuring anyone working or accessing SCS is protected from legal repercussions … that’s where there’s uncertainty.”
The city’s health department had studied and approved SCS in 2018. Mayor Breed, who lost a sister to overdose, fully supports SCS and has been publicly advocating for them as mayor since she entered office that same year. This included serving on the city’s Safe Injection task Force and pushing the federal government to back proposed SCS.
San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors then unanimously approved SCS in June 2020, following legislation that Breed co-sponsored. A few months later, California State Senator Scott Wiener introduced a bill to authorize a three-year pilot program for SCS in several California cities, including San Francisco. That bill passed the State Senate in April 2021, but the House of Representatives did not vote on it. Governor Gavin Newsom is expected to support it if it passes the House.
“The mayor and the city attorney are working closely to identify the best legal strategies that will both allow the city to authorize these services and ensure that anyone working in them or accessing services is protected from legal repercussions,” Thomas said. “That’s where I think there’s still some uncertainty about what is needed.”
This year, Rhode Island became the first US state to approve a SCS pilot program. Several other US cities and states have shown signs of forward movement as well, including New York City. Meanwhile, the ongoing federal lawsuit in Philadelphia may finally push President Joe Biden’s administration to declare a public stance on SCS—something Breed has been pushing for, too.
Photograph of a Norway supervised consumption site via State of Massachusetts