California Governor Gavin Newsom on Monday vetoed a bill that would have authorized a limited number of safe injection sites, delivering a blow to harm reduction advocates trying to reign in the number of overdose deaths plaguing the state and the nation. Newsom vetoed the measure, Senate Bill 57, saying that the overdose prevention programs authorized by the bill could lead to a “world of unintended consequences.”
SB 57 would have authorized four local jurisdictions to operate overdose prevention programs, also known as safe consumption sites or safe injection sites, as a five-year pilot program. Overdose prevention centers would have been approved for Los Angeles County and the cities of San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles, where local leaders had requested to be included in the legislation. The bill was approved by the California State Assembly on June 30 and by the state Senate on August 1.
“Every overdose death is preventable,” Wiener said after the legislation was passed by the state Assembly. “We have the tools to end these deaths, get people healthy, and reduce harm for people who use drugs. Right now, we are letting people die on our streets for no reason other than an arbitrary legal prohibition that we need to remove. SB 57 is long overdue, and will make a huge impact for some of the most vulnerable people in our community.”
Safe injection sites offer places where people can inject or otherwise consume drugs under the supervision of trained healthcare professionals, who can intervene in the event of a drug overdose or other medical emergency. Overdose prevention centers also offer other services including referrals to drug treatment, housing assistance, and HIV prevention services. Safe injection sites have operated successfully in Switzerland, Canada, and at least ten other countries for years, with no overdose deaths among people using the facilities recorded.
Late last year, civic officials in New York City announced that the city had opened the first publicly recognized overdose prevention centers in the United States. Since then, research published by the American Medical Association found that New York’s safe consumption drug sites have decreased overdose risk, encouraged people not to use illicit drugs in public, and provided ancillary health services to people who use illicit substances.
Veto Cites Possible ‘Unintended Consequences’
The success of other safe injection sites failed to sway the California governor, however. While expressing support for harm reduction measures, he said that they need “well-documented, vetted, and thoughtful operational and sustainability plans.” Newsom also acknowledged that overdose prevention programs could be beneficial, but vetoed SB-57 on Monday, citing potential “unintended consequences” of the legislation.
“It is possible that these sites would help improve the safety and health of our urban areas, but if done without a strong plan, they could work against this purpose,” the governor wrote in his veto message. “These unintended consequences in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland cannot be taken lightly. Worsening drug consumption challenges in these areas is not a risk we can take.”
Instead of approving the legislation, Newsom said that he would direct the secretary of the California Department of Health and Human Services “to convene city and county officials to discuss minimum standards and best practices for safe and sustainable overdose prevention programs.”
“I remain open to this discussion when those local officials come back to the Legislature with recommendations for a truly limited pilot program — with comprehensive plans for siting, operations, community partnerships, and fiscal sustainability that demonstrate how these programs will be run safely and effectively,” Newsom wrote.
Supporters Disappointed By Veto
After Newsom’s veto of the safe injection site bill was announced, Wiener said in a statement that it does not take more research to come to the conclusion that overdose prevention centers save lives.
“Today’s veto is tragic,” said Wiener. “While this veto is a major setback for the effort to save lives and connect people to treatment, we must not — and will not — let it end this movement. We’ll continue to fight for an end to the War on Drugs and a focus on drug use and addiction as the health issues that they are.”
A coalition of healthcare organizations, drug treatment specialists, policy reform advocates and civil rights organizations supported the passage of SB 57, saying the bill would save lives and create opportunities for substance abuse intervention. Jeannette Zanipatin, California state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, criticized Newsom’s reasoning for the veto, noting that local officials in the jurisdictions slated for the safe consumption sites had already signed onto the legislation.
“We are incredibly disappointed and heartbroken that Governor Newsom has put his own political ambitions ahead of saving thousands of lives and vetoed this critical legislation. Despite the Governor’s remarks, LA, San Francisco and Oakland have already designated this a priority by authorizing the programs locally and have been standing ready to implement them quickly,” Zanipatin said in a statement from the group. “We have already engaged local stakeholders in a robust process and they have taken active steps towards implementation in order to be part of the pilot SB 57 would have put in place. We don’t need additional processes. What we need is action. Without action, people are going to die.”
Shane Pennington, counsel at the cannabis law firm Vicente Sederberg LLP, is also disappointed by the veto.
“Gov. Newsom’s decision to veto this bill is very disappointing,” Pennington wrote in an email to High Times. “Research proves that safe consumption sites save lives, plain and simple. I hope the Governor’s call for local leadership to develop thoughtful operational and sustainable plans for the sites bears fruit.”