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Safe drug use sites: Anxiety grows as controversial bill sits on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk

Sup. Dorsey presents a photo of the amount of fentanyl that triggers an overdose during a press conference in San Francisco, Calif. on Wednesday, August 10, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

High-profile politicians and health leaders gathered at the Ellis Street headquarters of Glide Foundation on Wednesday to demand Gov. Gavin Newsom sign legislation that would sanction sites for supervised drug use in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Oakland.

For those backing the legislation, each day that goes by without it being passed means more lives unnecessarily lost to overdoses.  

The bill was passed by the State Senate last week and landed on Newsom’s desk on Wednesday, setting a timer for 12 days and ramping up the anxiety among harm reduction advocates. 

“His poker face concerns me,” said Paul Harkin, director of harm reduction services at HealthRight360, one of the city’s largest drug health nonprofits. “Maybe he’s waiting to walk into the arena and save the day.” 

While State Sen. Scott Wiener, Supervisor Matt Dorsey and fellow supporters of the bill spoke to a crowd of reporters on Ellis Street in the Tenderloin, people openly used drugs on the sidewalk down the street. One man who identified himself as homeless screamed out of frustration at the crowd, while another person was wheeled into an ambulance.

“Had it been signed into law years ago, as it should have been, how many lives would have been saved,” asked Wiener, lead author of the bill. 

Will Carter, who’s been living on the streets of San Francisco for five years and tuned into parts of the press conference, told The Standard that he’s supportive of safe consumption sites even though he doesn’t use opiods. 

“I just want a place to go to feel safe,” Carter said.

If Newsom signs the bill, it won’t go into effect until January. And once passed, the city is unlikely to move forward with opening a site until granted the approval of the federal government. 

“We are eagerly awaiting anticipated guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice on appropriate guardrails,” city attorney spokesperson Jen Kwart said in a statement.

The U.S. Department of Justice indicated in a letter seen by The Standard to Mayor London Breed on Feb. 15 that they are evaluating a path forward for safe consumption sites, but the department has continually delayed its own deadlines and is currently expecting a decision by Sept. 22.

The uncertainty surrounding the federal ruling forces a tough decision upon city leaders, who could face legal liability if they move forward before being granted the go-ahead. 

The Philadelphia-based nonprofit Safehouse announced plans to open a site in Feb. 2019 but faced a lawsuit from Trump appointed attorney William McSwain, who alleged the nonprofit was in violation of the “crack house” statute. 

A district judge ultimately ruled in favor of Safehouse and President Biden’s Department of Justice is now using the Safehouse litigation to explore creating new “guardrails” for safe consumption sites. 

“It would be such a deep tragedy if the president of the United States were to move toward allowing safe consumption sites, with California vetoing a safe consumption site bill,” Wiener said. 

The city has already purchased two connecting buildings in the Tenderloin that would serve as a safe consumption site. 

New York City opened two safe consumption sites in November, becoming the first city in the nation to do so. The city also became the first to go against federal law in doing so, while Rhode Island has also passed legislation that authorizes safe use sites.

The idea to open safe consumption sites in San Francisco has been debated for many years but so far it hasn’t materialized.

The San Francisco Department of Public Health announced the opening of two sites in Feb. 2018, but the plan never came to fruition.

A facility called the Tenderloin Center claims it has reversed over 100 overdoses since it morphed into a de facto overdose prevention site after it opened in January. But the site is scheduled to shutter by the year’s end. 

For now, supporters of safe use sites in San Francisco will be paying close attention to murmurings from Newsom’s office ahead of his final decision.

David Sjostedt can be reached at