This week, Governor Gavin Newsom signed off on a $15.2 million budget to fund staff positions for programs that support drug users — in a manner many find to be controversial. Harm reduction programs commonly offer clean syringes, basic medical care supplies, and overdose prevention medication for people who use drugs but have throughout history been operated under the radar and largely run by volunteers. The federal government has a ban on funding such programs despite ample evidence that they save lives, and 15 states have deemed them illegal.
San Francisco is fairly far ahead of the rest of the country in this regard, having acknowledged the medical necessity of such programs to reduce HIV, Hep C, and overdose deaths years ago. If you use drugs, there are places to get clean needles every day of the week — whether it’s the AIDS Foundation’s bustling Harm Reduction Center on Sixth Street (which is open more than 40 hours a week) or a van full of supplies that’s driven out to the Bayview every Monday night. People can drop off used needles, and get connected to other services, such as medical care or drug treatment programs.
But part of the success of San Francisco’s programs is that there is funding for staff to run them. In other less-urban areas of the state, that’s not the case; the Fresno Needle Exchange Program has been entirely volunteer-run for 24 years, for example. This new wave of funding will provide one or two full-time jobs at nearly 50 syringe programs in California, which is a game changer for small, underfunded organizations.
“We had providers travel to Sacramento from all over the state, taking time they don’t have, mostly unpaid time, to share their experiences with legislators and ask for support because they know that this funding will have a huge impact on the services they offer,” says Jenna Haywood of the Harm Reduction Coalition, which co-sponsored the budgetary request. “This may not seem like a lot of money compared to other budget items, but every dollar matters to these programs. These people deeply care about their work and they deserve to have adequate resources.”
Dr. Libby Guthrie of the Mendocino County AIDS/Viral Hepatitis Network says her organization struggles to meet the needs of people in her rural community, furthering their risk of serious illnesses or fatal overdoses. “The people we are unable to serve directly are often living in remote areas with little or no resources, with no means to connect to life-changing or life-saving services and supports,” she says. “What the budget allocation in Mendocino County would do for us, to provide an outreach health navigator to connect with folks in these remote areas, who are at highest risk of overdose and/or extremely poor health outcomes … this ‘small’ change will provide a tremendous difference in those people’s lives.”
Both the Harm Reduction Coalition and the Drug Policy Alliance submitted this request in 2018, but similar to the safe consumption sites bill, it was vetoed by then-Governor Jerry Brown. A current version of the safe consumption bill has been postponed until 2020 due to skepticism from the Senate, but Newsom’s support of this latest round of funding may bode well for its future if it clears the Assembly and Senate again to land on the governor’s desk.
In the meantime, this $15.2 million is going to preserve the future of on-the-ground, grassroots efforts to better serve people who use drugs for years to come.