Governor Brown Caves to Trump Administration Threats, Bans Safe Consumption Sites

The California governor sided with law enforcement over public health professionals for a backward decision that affects the health of thousands.

A sample safe consumption site table. (Photo: Nuala Sawyer)

Giving in to decades of stigmatization and the criminalization of drug users, Governor Jerry Brown blocked a revolutionary healthcare solution Sunday night when he vetoed Assembly Bill 186, which would have allowed safe consumption sites to open in San Francisco. Brown ignored highly-regarded medical studies proving that the sites are beneficial for public health — instead choosing to side with law enforcement, which is responsible for carrying out a national war on drugs that has criminalized hundreds of thousands to fuel the for-profit prison industrial complex. 

“The supporters of this bill believe these ‘injection centers’ will have positive impacts, including reducing the deaths, disease, and infections resulting from drug use,” Brown wrote. “Other authorities — including law enforcement, drug court judges and some who provide rehabilitative treatment — strongly disagree that the ‘harm reduction’ approach envisioned by AB 186 is beneficial. After great reflection, I conclude the disadvantages of this bill far outweigh the possible benefits.”

Studies show that safe injection sites reduce drug overdoses in the communities where they are built by 35 percent, and direct drug users to much-needed services, such as mental health support and addiction treatment. In San Francisco, which has an estimated 22,000 injection drug users, the effects of such sites could be enormous, and would reduce syringe litter on the streets and public drug consumption. 

Mayor London Breed, who has long-supported the sites, voiced her “disappointment” in Brown’s decision. 

“If we are going to stop the drug use we see in public every day and get the needles off our streets, we need proven public health solutions,” she wrote in an email on Sunday evening. “We have seen these sites work in cities in other countries, and we know they not only save lives, but they can save our city money by reducing costs for health care and emergency services. Despite this veto, we will still continue to work with our community partners on trying to come up with a solution to move this effort forward.”

The veto came as a massive blow to the public health professionals who spent months pushing the plan forward with the help of Senator Scott Wiener and Assemblymember Susan Eggman, who co-authored the bill.

“I am shocked that the Governor turned his back on the science and the experts and instead used outdated drug war ideology to justify his veto,” said Laura Thomas, interim state director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “He cited long-disproven ideas about substance use in his veto message rationale. It’s disturbing that Governor Brown apparently believes these myths about the need for coercive treatment and even more disturbing that people will die because of his veto. Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in California. How many people have to die before Governor Brown is willing to listen to the science and evidence and experience? How many families have to lose a loved one?”  

After the Senate passed it in August spirits were high, but skepticism over Brown’s likelihood of signing the bill grew as week after week passed in September. The LA Times editorial board even wrote an op-ed in mid-September titled “Gov. Brown, don’t let the feds scare you into vetoing safe injection sites.”

And yet, that’s what it appears he did, just hours before the deadline. “The United States Attorney General has already threatened prosecution and it would be irresponsible to expose local officials and health care professionals to potential federal charges,” Brown wrote, giving in to threats from the most dysfunctional presidential administration in decades. 

The San Francisco AIDS Foundation, which runs a popular needle exchange program on Sixth Street along with several pop-up sites throughout the city, has long-supported safe consumption sites. 

“It is disheartening that the governor chose to block legislation that was approved by the California Legislature, which would not only save lives but would also save the government money,” said Joe Hollendoner, San Francisco AIDS Foundation CEO. “Ending the HIV and opioid epidemics requires new, bold approachesIn spite of this disappointing decision from Governor Brown, we look forward to continuing to work with Mayor Breed and our community partners to make overdose prevention centers a reality for San Francisco.”

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