New law would allow safe drug injection sites in Oakland, San Francisco

Oakland and San Francisco soon could become two of the first cities in the country to pursue an audacious strategy to control drug overdoses — safe injection sites where users can shoot up in a protected setting.

Senate Bill 57, passed by the state legislature this month, would allow the two Bay Area cities and Los Angeles to open the experimental facilities where users can consume illicit drugs supervised by people trained to reverse an overdose. Users would bring their own drugs but would be provided with clean supplies, such as needles.

Oakland and San Francisco already have free needle-exchange programs, and San Francisco offers a sobering center where drug users can safely ride out a high, but SB 57 would take those measures a step further. The injection pilot program would last until 2028.

There are about 165 safe-injection sites operating in 10 countries around the world, and New York City opened the first two in the U.S. last year.

Advocates say the facilities will save lives, while opponents worry they’ll become a blight on whatever neighborhood is unlucky enough to host one.

“These sites are one piece of the puzzle,” said Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, who introduced the bill. “So instead of people shooting up on the streets and dying of overdoses, they can use drugs inside in a safe, clean setting and not die.”

Overdose deaths have soared in recent years, rising an estimated 16% in California as of February, according to preliminary year-over-year data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rampant, brazen drug use has become a major political flashpoint in San Francisco, where voters recalled progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin earlier this year amid complaints he was too permissive. In Alameda County so far this year, the Sheriff’s Office Coroner’s Bureau has listed illicit drug use as the primary cause of death in 112 cases. An official cause is still pending in several recent deaths.

Tracy McCray, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, doesn’t think allowing drug use is the answer.

“These locations are nothing more than sanctioned drug dens that will negatively impact the residents and businesses unlucky enough to be adjacent to these sites,” McCray said in a statement. “Local government leaders who throw up their hands and just allow illegal drugs and drug use to pour into our neighborhoods ought to be required to live next to one of these dens and experience firsthand the misery they are sanctioning.”

Supporters have been trying for years to legalize safe injection sites in California. Former Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill in 2018 that would have authorized such sites in San Francisco. But Gov. Gavin Newsom in the past has indicated he’s receptive to the idea.

If the bill passes, it would then be up to the Oakland City Council — and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, L.A. City Council and L.A. County Board of Supervisors — to opt in by passing an ordinance to open a site.

In Oakland, City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas supports the idea. She drafted an ordinance in 2019, which was then passed by the full council, to add Oakland to state legislation that sought to authorize safe-injection sites in San Francisco. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf also supports the move, saying it will “save lives and reduce harm.” But she won’t be the one spearheading such a project — her time as mayor is up in November.

San Francisco has been trying to open a safe-injection site for some time, and SB 57 would help smooth the way by addressing the “challenging legal issues,” according to an emailed statement from the city’s Department of Public Health.

Newsom’s office declined to comment on the pending legislation and said the bill had not yet been delivered to the governor’s desk. When it is, he will have 12 days to sign or veto it.

If Newsom green-lights the bill, it would require all safe-injection sites to offer their clients access or referrals to addiction treatment, medical care, mental health help and other social services.

The problem is, those services already are overtaxed and under-resourced, said Dr. Noha Aboelata, CEO of Roots Community Health Center in Oakland. There’s a lack of capacity in both short-term detox programs and long-term residential treatment programs, she said.

“It still services a need,” Aboelata said of safe-injection sites. “I think the concern would definitely be whether there are enough resources to be able to refer people from there into.”

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The injection sites are still deemed illegal under federal law. But Oakland’s mayor says that won’t stop them.

”Oakland has never been afraid to push its powers as a charter city against federal power,” Schaaf said. “Whether that’s our sanctuary city status or our early legalization of medical cannabis, we have a proud history of being on the progressive vanguard for policy change.”