Residents Share Concerns About California Bill to Allow Drug Injection Site in San Francisco

March 28, 2019 Updated: March 28, 2019

SACRAMENTO, Calif.—Individuals from the Sacramento and Bay Area regions met at the state capitol on March 19 to voice their opposition to a bill that would create a so-called Safe Injection Site (SIS) in San Francisco.

The bill, AB-362, would allow for for operation of “overdose prevention programs,” according to the text of the bill. The legislation was introduced this year, and the previous year, by Democratic Assembly Member Susan Eggman.

In 2018, the bill was vetoed by former California Governor Jerry Brown. “After great reflection, I conclude that the disadvantages of this bill far outweigh the possible benefits,” Brown wrote in a letter to the California State Assembly. “I do not believe that enabling illegal drug use in government sponsored injection centers—with no corresponding requirement that the user undergo treatment—will reduce drug addiction.”

AB-362 has already passed the lower-house Health Committee. California Governor Gavin Newsom has said he is open to allowing safe injection sites and is expected to sign the bill.

Words of Warning

Those opposed have voiced similar opinions to Brown: The bill would increase drug use and not help drug users break their addiction.

Frank Lee, the Bay Area Director of the California Coalition Against Drugs, organized the rally. “AB-362 is virtual legalization of all kinds of drugs, including schedule 1 prohibited drugs,” Lee said.

Heroin is one of the many schedule 1 prohibited substances.

Lee described an existing SIS in Vancouver, Canada named Insite. “The proponents’ major argument is that it would reduce the number of drug overdose cases,” Lee said. However, Lee argued that the number of overdose related deaths has increased by nearly ten times in Vancouver since Insite opened in 2003.

In 2003, about 44 people died in Vancouver from drug related overdoses, according to the British Colombia Centre for Excellence (pdf). In 2018, 387 died from such overdoses, reported the Coronors Service (pdf). Data suggests that the most significant increase in deaths began in 2015.

One doctor who is experienced with drug users promotes prevention instead.

“I’ve seen a lot of drug addicts,” Doctor Evelyn Li said.

Li, a cardiologist with 35 years of practice, said that a SIS is not the best solution. She suggested that prevention is the way to stop addictive behavior.

“In a [National Institute of Health] study over 30 years of following drug addicts, they found that accessibility and exposure are the number one reason why people can not stay away from drugs,” said Li. “Having centers like this would just increase more opportunity for them to access the drugs.”

90% of addiction starts in one’s teenage years, according to Li. She said providing people with a place to use drugs is not the way to stop addictive behavior.

John Lovell, who works as a lobbyist primarily for law enforcement agencies, including the California Narcotics Officer’s Association, warned about the bill. He said that it doesn’t provide a solution to people’s addiction, and also brings damage to the areas around it.

“AB-362 Will simply enable drug use, and that’s the tragedy of this,” said John Lovell, who works as a lobbyist primarily for law enforcement agencies, including the California Narcotics Officer’s Association.

Lovell described Insite in a similar way to Lee. “The location of Insite has now become a magnet for all related street drug activity,” Lovell said. “Dealers have come because that’s where the customers are, so the neighborhood has been severely damaged.”

Loic, a drug user, speaks to a journalist
Loic, a drug user, speaks to a journalist in the ARGOS supervised injection site in Strasbourg on March 30, 2017. (Sebastien Bozon/AFP/Getty Images)

Lovell said that even though he is Democratic, he doesn’t support the bill.

The bill doesn’t offer a solution to addiction, according to Lovell. “What we should be doing is committing all of our resources, all of our creativity, to help people break the vice of addiction,” Lovell said. “Not engaging in activity which simply enables the continuation of that addictive behavior.”

A comparison that Lovell made was of an alcoholic who decided to not drink at an inexpensive bar, and instead drink at a fancy hotel restaurant. “It’s safer, but it’s not going to get you out of the throes of addiction.” Another comparison he made was of a transit authority acknowledging a drunk driving problem, then adding a “drunk driving lane” to every freeway.

Voices of Experience

Bishop Ron Allen, founder and president of the International Faith Based Coalition, warned against SIS from his own experience.

“It’s easy to think that there is a safe place to do drugs,” said Allen. “But there is no safe place.”

Allen describes himself as a recovering addict with 21 years of sobriety. He spoke from 7 years of experience in being consumed by addiction. “Helping addicts get high will not induce them to want to go to rehab,” said Allen.

Rehabilitation is needed instead of access, according to Allen. “It’s over the top madness for us to think that by supplying heroine addicts, or any other addict, with the tools to get high is the correct thing to do,” Allen said.

Doctor Christy Brown had first had experience watching her son go through levels of addiction. “When my son was suffering from heroin addiction, the last thing I wanted was to have anybody help him to be able to inject drugs into his system,” Brown said.

Brown, the Bay Area Director of Momstrong, a group for parents whose children suffered from drug use, also suggested prevention of addiction at its earliest stages. “We need prevention programs as part of  a comprehensive strategy,” Brown said.

A SIS doesn’t provide a comprehensive solution, according to Brown. “They’re just a bandaid, it’s not going to do much,” Brown said.

Though Brown also says she is Democratic, she does not agree with the bill. Her son has been sober for five years, after receiving treatment.