San Francisco wants safe injection sites. Law enforcement stands in its way.
There are approximately 22,000 intravenous drug users in the city.
San Francisco has long felt the impact of the country’s growing opioid crisis. The city is home to approximately 22,000 residents who inject heroin and other prescription drugs, and hundreds of people have overdosed in recent years.
Public health officials, lawmakers, and community organizations are working diligently to develop a multi-pronged approach to tackle the problem. Now, these groups are overwhelmingly supporting a state bill that would open safe injection sites in San Francisco County and seven other counties in the California. Similar sites are currently up and running in 66 cities worldwide, and countless lives have been saved. But there is one group that adamantly opposes the idea and has the power to stop it dead in its tracks: law enforcement.
California Assembly Bill 186 is intended to create a “safer drug consumption program” by opening facilities where intravenous drug users can be monitored by health care professionals. While the bill acknowledges existing law that prohibits the use of controlled substances, it aims to reduce overdoses by putting drug users under the watchful eye of doctors and other medical personnel who can provide life-saving treatment on the spot. Drug users would also have access to clean needles and receive referrals for substance abuse treatment elsewhere. The bill would also protect people who shoot up at designated injection sites from criminal charges.
Stockton Assemblywoman Susan Eggman introduced the proposal in January, which was co-authored by California State Senator Scott Wiener. Wiener represents San Francisco and describes himself as “a passionate supporter” of safe injection. “I am a big believer in harm reduction, public health strategies and trying new things,” he told the San Francisco Examiner in April. “The current situation is not working well. You can see that with injection drug use in our streets and syringes.”
The legislation is endorsed by public defenders, drug policy experts, and substance abuse treatment providers. It is also backed by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, at a time when prosecutors in other parts of the country are eager to ramp up enforcement and enhance criminal penalties for illicit drug use. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors has yet to take an official stance on the matter, but they have created a task force to study safe injection sites and are expected to review the findings this month.
Despite widespread support from community members, and the willingness of city leaders to at least consider safe injection sites as a viable solution to the epidemic, law enforcement associations are not on board.
“While we appreciate that the intent of the bill is to provide a space where people who use drugs can do so under the watchful eye of healthcare professionals who may also educate and connect them with addiction treatment services, we are concerned about the impact this drug activity would have on crime in the areas surrounding these sites,” the California District Attorneys Association testified during a senate committee hearing on the bill. “Beyond the drug and theft crimes that are often committed by individuals with substance abuse issues, those individuals themselves may become attractive targets for other criminals who would take advantage of these geographic clusters of impaired victims.”
Police organizations also believe that the proposal is merely giving people the green light to use drugs illegally. According to the legislative director of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, Cory Salzillo, the approach “sends the wrong message about drug use.” He says it is hard to gauge what will happen to drug users upon leaving safe injection sites. The California Police Chiefs’ Association argues that such a policy would violate federal law, and that designated injection sites “fall short in supporting long-term healing.”
Altogether, this opposition could be enough to kill the bill.
Law enforcement agencies are historically adept at influencing political decisions. They have the backing of hundreds — if not thousands — of members, which gives them significant lobbying power within political circles. Together, these groups have blocked a wide range of criminal justice proposals that have bipartisan backing; this year alone, efforts to make juvenile sentencing more humane, eliminate civil asset forfeiture, and reform bail have gone up in flames due to law enforcement pressure. In California, police organizations have proven time and time again that they are a force to be reckoned with, blocking legislation that would have reformed body camera policies and made police records more accessible to the public in recent years.
With staunch opposition from police and prosecutors throughout California, Assembly Bill 186 could suffer a similar fate. It may not matter that the district attorney in San Francisco believes in the bill’s potential.
As eager as San Franciscans are for safe injection sites, time is running out. The bill passed the California State Assembly in June, and state senators have sat on the bill ever since. Law enforcement pressure is likely behind this foot-dragging. There is now one week left to vote on the life-saving measure before it dies in the legislature. The longer lawmakers wait, the longer thousands of lives are left hanging in the balance.