California Senate Passes Landmark Safe Consumption Site Bill

After years of community advocacy, the passage of AB 186 means that San Francisco finally has the green light to open the sites.

A sample safe injection table, set up at a panel on the programs by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, Aug. 16, 2018. (Photo: Nuala Sawyer)

A massive statewide assembly bill passed the California Senate today, offering major legal support to San Francisco’s pending safe consumption sites. Assembly Bill 186, authored by Assemblymember Susan Talamantes Eggman (D- Stockton) and Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), specifically permits San Francisco to open facilities for people to use controlled substances in a safe setting, surrounded by medical professionals and harm reduction workers.

The city approved plans safe consumption sites in February after a task force overwhelmingly proved the effectiveness of the model, which has been employed in other countries for decades. 

“I am committed to opening one of these sites here in San Francisco, no matter what it takes, because the status quo is not acceptable,” Mayor London Breed Tuesday, in the wake of the news. 

Locally, safe consumption sites have the potential to reach a population often cut out of traditional medical environments. Pierre-Cedric Crouch, director of nursing at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, says he learned early on about the challenges that unhoused people on city streets face in seeing a doctor. 

“People get their stuff stolen every night,” Crouch said at a panel on the sites last week. “They have to restart from zero. The expectation that someone’s going to have an ID, or paperwork, or a phone, is ridiculous. You need this low-level access to care, where people can walk in, get the care they need, and walk out. This is something safe consumption sites will allow you to do; to offer services where people are already going. ‘Oh you’re here to shoot up, by the way, do you want to talk to somebody after that?’ That’s where I feel like we should be headed.”

In addition to connecting people who use drugs to services, safe consumption sites also provide people with monitored care that is key to preventing overdoses. With fentanyl being slipped into an increasing range of street drugs, the possibility of overdose has risen enormously. Having staff on hand trained in administering Narcan, an opioid overdose reversal drug, could cut down on the 100 or so people who die from drug-related overdoses in the city each year. 

“We have already lost too many people to overdose in this country,” said Laura Thomas, interim state director for Drug Policy Alliance. “I’m grateful to the State Senate for understanding the urgent necessity to take action, and for giving San Francisco the green light to move forward and save lives. We’ve been talking about the need for these services in San Francisco for over a decade. It’s time to take action.”

AB 186 hints at an evolving liberal understanding of drug use in statewide politics. It passed the Assembly successfully last year, but lost in the Senate by two votes. Today, it was passed in the Senate by 21 votes. It will be sent back to the Assembly for approval of amendments, before landing on Governor Jerry Brown’s desk for his signature. 

For people who use drugs, the approval of safe consumption sites offers a little bit of valuable destigmatization in a nation that criminalizes those who use.

“The history of the drug war is basically one man trying to figure out how to put more people of color in jail. That’s it. And he used drugs as a tool to do that. Now we’re 100+ years later, ignoring the context of the situation,” says Miss Ian Callaghan, executive director of San Francisco Drug Users Union. “Safe consumption sites are a droplet of an answer, but as we exist underneath an administration right now that bans words like ‘evidence-based’ and ‘science-based’ from the CDC, it’s hard to move forward. ”

A sample safe consumption site is being set up at GLIDE from Aug. 28 to Aug. 31. To see it in person, you can schedule a tour with trained staff by signing up here.

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