Please don’t veto this bill that will save many lives in San Francisco

Dear Governor Gavin Newsom,

By the end of September, you will face the daunting task of deciding the fate of potentially 1,000 bills sent to you by our prolific state legislature.

You should pay close attention to the one that should arrive on your desktop as early as Wednesday. This is a renewed attempt to grant the state permission for San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles to open supervised consumption sites where people can inject or smoke drugs alongside harm reduction specialists. These experts can pull people back from the brink if they start to overdose, while offering services and potential links to treatment.

Rumor in the state capitol says you’re considering a veto. After all, you’re clearly thinking about a presidential race, and explaining it to a far more conservative national audience than California might be tricky.

Your spokesperson said Tuesday that your office isn’t commenting on pending legislation and you don’t have the bill yet anyway. But you will soon.

Governor, you should put politics aside and sign.

This decision would fit with your recent and clever co-option of the term “pro-life”. You have wisely argued that it is not really pro-life to ban abortion and do little to ensure that all those babies grow up to lead happy and healthy lives. You pointed out that it is actually pro-life to support gun safety laws, universal preschool and afterschool programs, health care expansion, and a robust pandemic response.

Supervised consumption sites are also pro-life in a San Francisco where people struggle to know what to do when they come across a body lying on a sidewalk surrounded by tinfoil, syringes and lighters.

Tolerating drug use – even indoors and under supervision – seems strange at first, it’s true.

But far stranger is San Francisco’s record of inaction to deal with a crisis sending one or two people, on average, to the city morgue every day. Fifty-three people died of drug overdoses in the city in June, bringing the death toll this year to 297. Since the start of 2020, 1,649 people have died of drug overdoses, nearly double the number of people who have succumbed to COVID-19.

These deaths often occur in alleys, tents, or apartments with no one around to administer the life-saving Narcan or call 911. That strikes me as the opposite of pro-life.

“Safe consumer sites are absolutely a pro-life strategy,” said Senator Scott Wiener, author of the bill. “We have local communities coming to us and begging us to give them permission to try these sites as a way to save lives. Why the hell would we say no to them?

Supervised consumption sites exist in Canada, Europe and Australia, and no center has ever reported a person who died of an overdose indoors. It’s not an experiment – it’s a proven breakthrough.

This spring, I visited New York to see the first two supervised consumption sites to open in the United States and came away more convinced than ever that San Francisco is wasting time and lives.

Tuesday, I resumed contact by phone with Sam Rivera, the executive director of OnPoint NYC, the nonprofit association that manages the Big Apple sites. The centers’ statistics continue to be extremely impressive: since they opened in November, 1,600 people have used the sites a total of 30,000 times, and harm reduction specialists have intervened in 400 life-threatening overdoses.

Rivera is adamant, Governor, that you should sign legislation allowing more cities to join his efforts.

“California has been at the forefront of trying to get this done, and they need a leader to step in and meet the need,” he said. “If someone has the opportunity and the position of power to sign a bill that will save lives and they don’t, then they are part of the lives we lose. Every day we wait, people die.

New York City venues provided all sorts of additional benefits. The surrounding sidewalks are much clearer on the public use of drugs and paraphernalia like needles. Drug dealers did not congregate at the sites. Many users have reduced the amount of drugs they use and some have quit altogether.

A harm reduction specialist helps a client prepare to inject heroin at a supervised site in New York City.

Gabrielle Lurie/The Chronicle

Then there’s this: Rivera told me that the 400 overdoses staff responded to resulted in only five calls for an ambulance and only two actual ambulance rides. He said, conservatively, that an overdose resulting in calls to paramedics and police, an ambulance ride and a stay in the emergency room costs $30,000.

He said the sites have already saved the city about $12 million, not including the cost of coroners’ duties.

Rivera opened the sites with the go-ahead from former Mayor Bill de Blasio, but did not have state or federal approval. They thought that with a Democratic governor and president, they were unlikely to face state or federal consequences — and so far, they were right.

I’ve argued before that San Francisco should just open the sites, permission be damned. You may remember, Governor, a virtuous act of civil disobedience you led as mayor on February 12, 2004 – an act that turned City Hall into a gay wedding chapel and ultimately helped your political outlook.

But as with just about every tough pursuit these days, our town is paralyzed and still in the talking, debating, and hand-wringing phase. City officials could use a push from you to do the right thing. Signing the legislation would mean those involved in setting up and running the sites would not be threatened with legal action and health workers would not risk their licenses.

It would also give the three California cities leverage to gain federal government approval. Philadelphia is currently negotiating with the Justice Department over its plan to open supervised consumption sites, and the federal government is expected to bless them — with some required guardrails in place. Your veto could jeopardize San Francisco’s ability to get the same federal green light.

Your predecessor, Jerry Brown, vetoed an almost identical bill in 2018, saying the sites would not reduce drug addiction. Look at what’s happened since then – the catastrophic rise of fentanyl, a huge spike in deaths, some neighborhood sidewalks turned into horror shows, and California cities left unprepared.

Your signature would certainly be helpful.


briar knight

Heather Knight is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @hknightsf

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