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‘This is a good neighbor’: San Francisco officials impressed by New York drug consumption sites

San Francisco D6 City Supervisor Matt Dorsey, left, and San Francisco D9 City Supervisor Hillary Ronen, center, tour an OnPoint safe injection site at 500 West 180th St. in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, March 03, 2023. A delegation from San Francisco toured two OnPoint locations Friday, the first supervised drug injection sites in the United States. | Dave Sanders for The Standard

San Francisco leaders said they came away impressed by what they saw during a tour of two sites for supervised drug use in New York City and hope to bring lessons in how to open up similar sites in San Francisco.

The tour of the safe consumption sites, both operated by the nonprofit OnPoint NYC, took place on Friday as the city looks to open privately funded facilities for supervised drug use in an effort to abate an overdose crisis that has claimed over 2,000 lives since 2020. 

Although safe consumption sites have garnered virtually unanimous support among local legislators, the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office has advised against public funding for the facilities because they are still illegal under federal law 

Supervisor Matt Dorsey, a recovering addict, said the tour was an emotional experience because of how the organization treated clients. 

A man places a cap on a needle after injecting himself at an OnPoint location in Manhattan's East Harlem neighborhood on March 3, 2023. | Dave Sanders for The Standard

“It’s powerful and moving to see a community-based org that’s committed to working with addicts and treating them as human beings,” Dorsey said. 

The tour included staff from Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Dorsey’s office, as well as representatives from the SF Fire Department, the SF Public Defender’s Office, the SF Department of Public Health and the nonprofits HealthRight 360, the SF AIDS Foundation and the Gubbio Project. 

Ronen’s, Dorsey’s the Public Defender’s office and the Gubbio Project’s trips were funded from grants provided by the San Francisco Foundation and the California Health Care Foundation, according to Ronen. The SF AIDS Foundation, HealthRight 360 and a representative from the health department self-funded their trips, while the remaining members were reportedly paid for by the city. 

Ronen, who organized the trip, said the tour made her realize that San Francisco is falling behind in implementing innovative policies.

“We pride ourselves on being a City on the cutting edge. Not anymore,” Ronen said in a text message. “It’s time for San Francisco to act.”   

Some local leaders have advocated for using funds won through a lawsuit against major pharmaceutical companies in August, but the City Attorney’s Office has said those funds are indistinguishable from public funds

The complicated legal situation presents an obstacle for any local nonprofit that will be tasked with opening such a facility.

Hillary Ronen speaks with Sam Rivera, executive director of OnPoint NYC (center) and Dr. Hillary Kunins at an OnPoint safe injection site in Manhattan's East Harlem neighborhood. | Dave Sanders for The Standard

According to Executive Director of OnPoint Sam Rivera, the cost of running 28 drug consumption booths during the weekdays in New York City comes out to $1.4 million a year. Rivera said the sites in New York face potential closure as their private funding runs dry.

The city’s first safe consumption site, called the Tenderloin Center, cost the city $22 million and closed in December amid criticism over client outcomes and neighborhood impact. 

As a former spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Department, Dorsey said that he was also inspired by OnPoint’s commitment to public safety while offering services to people struggling with addiction. 

“This gives me faith that there’s a way to do this right,” Dorsey said. “There were cops right outside. This is a good neighbor.”