Newsom vetoes bill proposing California overdose prevention sites

California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday vetoed a controversial law that would have allowed supervised pilot programs at injection sites in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland to prevent drug overdose deaths and connect people to addiction treatments.

The number of safe injection sites that would have been authorized by the law could have sparked a “world of unintended consequences,” Newsom wrote in his veto message.

“It’s possible that these sites would help improve the safety and health of our urban areas, but if implemented without a strong plan, they could defeat that purpose,” Newsom said. “These unintended consequences in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland are not to be taken lightly. Worsening drug use challenges in these areas is not a risk we can take.”

Newsom reiterated that he is committed to harm reduction strategies, but said pilot programs need to be well planned and involve strong local leadership. He said he will meet California Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Directing Mark Ghaly to convene city and county officials to “discuss minimum standards and best practices” which could then be recommended to the Legislature.

“I remain open to that discussion if these local officials return to the Legislature with recommendations for a really limited pilot program — with comprehensive plans for site, operations, community partnerships and fiscal sustainability that demonstrate how these programs will be carried out safely and effectively,” he wrote.

Lawmakers this month sent Newsom one of the most politically challenging and closely watched proposals of the legislature, Senate Bill 57, in which Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) said he wrote to safely curb overdose deaths in California from injection sites, also called Overdose prevention programs. Opponents have criticized the bill from the outset as authorizing the government to use drugs.

Newsom said he was “very, very open” to a pilot program during his 2018 run for governor, after the then-governor. Jerry Brown vetoed similar, narrower legislation, giving proponents optimism this year that Newsom would sign the law. But Newsom has since faced harsh criticism for California’s mounting homelessness and drug addiction crisis, which his political critics have used as evidence of blatant failings in Democratic politics, particularly in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Both houses of the legislature narrowly passed the bill, despite having a Democratic supermajority. Moderate Democrats often split from their faction and joined Republicans in opposing the measure, or abstained.

“It’s like a lot of legislation, which is more nuanced, but it takes four paragraphs to try to explain it, and it takes five words to attack it,” said Democratic adviser Andrew Acosta. “Politically we live in a partisan world and people are going to take these things and attack them.”

State Senator Brian Dahle of Bieber, a Republican running against Newsom for governor this year, said California hasn’t done enough to prosecute criminals who bring illegal drugs into the state and he blamed Newsom for failing to fight a surge in fentanyl and other potentially deadly drugs in California.

“We need to stop the flow of drugs into our state. Thousands of people are dying,” he said. “Let’s get the drugs off our streets. Instead of making it easier or more accessible to use drugs, let’s get them into treatment programs.”

A coalition of treatment specialists, health groups and civil rights organizations argued that safe injection sites would save lives by providing people with addiction a safe place to use drugs under the supervision of trained professionals who could also make referrals for treatment. They said it would result in cleaner streets, reduce crime and prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis, while saving taxpayers money on ambulances and emergency rooms.

Calls for safe injection sites have coincided with a worrying rise in opioid overdose deaths, often involving fentanyl. In the United States, California recorded 6,843 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2021, according to preliminary data from the state Department of Health.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization working to end the so-called war on drugs, at least 14 countries operate nearly 200 overdose prevention centers. New York last year became the nation’s first city to open official locations. Within the first three weeks, the city’s two locations “avoided at least 59 overdoses to prevent injuries and deaths,” according to a December memo.

Laura Thomas, director of HIV and harm reduction policy at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, said her organization offers a list of services including access and disposal of sterile syringes, treatment and substance use counseling. Adding overdose prevention services, Thomas said, would help connect people to these readily available resources.

“The key aspect of these programs is that they offer more ways to connect, more ways to welcome people, and more ways to reverse an overdose in the moment,” Thomas said.

“The only requirement for recovery is to be alive,” said Dr. David Kan, an addiction specialist and former president of the California Society of Addiction Medicine, during a recent press conference urging Newsom to sign the law. “It opens the door to good and healthy interactions with healthcare workers to invite them to treatment.”

Law enforcement groups said SB 57 would only increase drug use and harm public safety. They have criticized the bill as a legal way to normalize addiction without providing a strong incentive for treatment, citing Brown’s veto of similar legislation in 2018 to validate their concerns. In his veto message, Brown said California doesn’t have enough drug treatment programs and instead called for “incentives and sanctions” to effectively address the crisis.

Greg Totten, executive director of California District Attorneys Assn., said California should heed that warning and focus on getting more people into treatment.

“We do not question the good faith or good intentions of those who advocate this law. We just basically think it’s a very bad idea,” Totten said. “Our core view of the bill is that it is the practical equivalent of state-sponsored facilitation of illicit and destructive drug use.”

Republican Senate leader Scott Wilk of Saugus called SB 57 “one of the most dangerous pieces of legislation I’ve ever seen sent to the governor.”

The measure would have come with a list of guard rails.

The proposal applied to a select few jurisdictions that have expressed an interest in establishing safe injection sites — San Francisco, Oakland, and the City and County of Los Angeles. The legislation would have expired in 2028, and jurisdictions would have had to complete a study on the programs by early 2027.

The public, local law enforcement, public health officials and other affected groups were affected needed to evaluate programs before they are set up and training and qualification criteria for on-site staff burned into the bill, as well as protocols to refer people for treatments and other services.

In a statement, Wiener said California does not need another study or working group to determine that safe injection sites can save lives.

“Today’s veto is tragic,” he said. “While this veto represents a major setback to efforts to save lives and connect people to treatment, we cannot – and will not – allow it to end this movement. We will continue to fight to end the war on drugs and focus on drug use and addiction for the health problems they are.” Newsom vetoes bill proposing California overdose prevention sites

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