Sparks flew on an unlikely stage on Wednesday night—the Dr. Phil show—as state Sen. Scott Wiener and author Michael Shellenberger duked it out over the efficacy of safe consumption sites.
Wiener and Shellenberger, a frequent critic of San Francisco’s approach to drug addiction, sparred over whether safe consumption sites—or facilities for supervised drug use—enable addiction. Wiener attempted to legalize safe consumption sites in California this year.
Shellenberger, who authored the book San Fransicko and ran unsuccessfully for governor, pointed to the condition of city streets around United Nation Plaza, where a de-facto safe consumption site called the Tenderloin Center has operated since January.
“The drug dealers are right across the street selling fentanyl and meth,” Shellenberger said. “The addicts would not just stay inside the supervised consumption site. It has taken over the entire plaza.”
Wiener countered that safe consumption facilities are an important tool to reduce open-air drug use and save lives.
“The only thing it enables is for people not to die,” Wiener said. “Instead of shooting up behind a dumpster or in front of someone's kids, they're doing it in a safe setting with health-care workers there who can help them.”
Show host, the unlicensed pop-psychologist Phillip McGraw, sided with Shellenberger as the show rolled through clips of people using drugs on San Francisco’s streets.
Another show panelist named Marcy Jo told a story about how her friend in Beverly Hills regularly washes waste and drug paraphernalia off the sidewalk in front of her Rodeo Drive boutique.
Wiener agreed with Jo on the “unacceptable” status of many California city streets but said that safe consumption sites are a part of the solution to this shared concern.
SF’s Tenderloin neighborhood has long served as a “containment zone” for the city’s open-air drug scene before the Tenderloin Center launched. Staff at the Tenderloin Center have reversed over 200 overdoses since it opened, but the site also drew scrutiny for connecting few guests to treatment along with street conditions around the facility.
Wiener authored Senate Bill 57, a bill to authorize safe consumption sites in select California cities that was vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in June.
Newsom vetoed the bill on the grounds that there was no plan to run such a site responsibly. San Francisco voters are also skeptical of the facilities, according to The Standard’s Fall 2022 poll: Only 35% of poll respondents supported opening facilities for supervised drug use.
The city is moving forward with opening “wellness hubs” that will mirror the Tenderloin Center in allowing people to use drugs on the premises.
“We are trying to help them and save their lives and get them into recovery. Because that's what these sites are about,” said Wiener on Wednesday.
David Sjostedt can be reached at [email protected]