San Francisco is on track to open its first two safe injection sites this July, a milestone that will likely make the city the first in the country to embrace the controversial model of allowing drug users to shoot up under supervision.
Other cities — including Seattle, Baltimore and Philadelphia — are talking about opening their own safe injection facilities, but San Francisco could get there first. Facilities already exist in Canada, Australia and Europe.
Barbara Garcia, director of San Francisco’s Department of Public Health, said Monday that she’s tending to the details, including where the facilities will be located. She’s working with six to eight nonprofits that already operate needle exchanges and offer other drug addiction services, and two of them will be selected to offer safe injection on-site.
The city’s fiscal year starts July 1, and Garcia said safe injection should begin “close to that date.” After officials get a sense of how the first two are working, a third and fourth could open, she said.
The safe injection sites will initially be privately funded, though Garcia wouldn’t say where the money’s coming from. She said that will help the city avoid liability, since intravenous drug use is against state and federal law. Opening the sites doesn’t require the approval of the Board of Supervisors or other city officials.
Asked whether opening the country’s first safe injection sites would place an even bigger target on San Francisco for retribution by the Trump administration, Garcia didn’t sound too concerned.
“That’s to be seen,” she said. “I’m more worried about people dying in our streets.”
It’s a legitimate worry. Today’s San Francisco is one big unsafe injection site, as many of the city’s estimated 22,000 intravenous drug users openly shoot up in plazas, parks and public transit stations with no consequence, often strewing their dirty needles around them. It’s become the norm to see people on our sidewalks in broad daylight sticking needles in just about every body part.
The safe injection sites could mean fewer dirty needles on the streets, since they’d be collected inside. Public health officials believe that 85 percent of the city’s intravenous drug users would use safe injection sites and that the city could save $3.5 million a year in medical costs.
Spencer uses a rubber band to get his veins to pop before injecting heroin on S.F.’s Redwood Street in October.
Garcia has been working on the idea for six years and had made little headway until recently. Now, residents and City Hall alike have finally warmed up to what was once a taboo idea.
The Chamber of Commerce’s Dignity Health CityBeat Poll is conducted every year, and for the first time this year included a question about safe injection sites. It asked respondents whether they support or oppose “drop-in facilities called safe injection sites where intravenous drug users could use their drugs, off the street, and in a place where medical and social services are available.”
Sixty-seven percent of respondents said they back the idea — 45 percent strongly and 22 percent somewhat. Twenty-seven percent opposed it, and 6 percent didn’t know. The poll found support for the sites regardless of age or homeownership. Progressives, liberals and moderates all backed the idea, though just 42 percent of self-described conservatives did.
The poll was conducted in January by David Binder Research and surveyed 500 registered city voters in English and Cantonese. The margin of error is 4.4 percent.
Jim Lazarus, senior vice president for public policy at the chamber, said he wasn’t surprised to see such strong support for safe injection sites. He said the annual poll consistently finds support for just about any potential solution to the devastating quality-of-life problems that plague the city’s streets.
“I think the open and notorious use of drugs on the street gives rise to overwhelming support for safe injection sites as a possible solution,” he said.
Another proponent of safe injection sites? Mayor Mark Farrell.
At a Chronicle editorial board meeting last week, Farrell said the status quo isn’t working.
“I understand the misgivings around it and some of the rhetoric from people who don’t support it, but we absolutely need to give it a try,” he said.
San Francisco has rarely shied away from breaking state or federal law when its leaders felt they were right, and city officials don’t seem all that concerned about breaking it again.
Needles at the Cactus safe injection site in Montreal, where drug addicts can shoot up using clean needles, with medical supervision and freedom from arrest.
State Sen. Scott Wiener is still trying to get state law changed to ensure that anybody associated with safe injection sites — including the property owners, employees and drug users themselves — don’t face arrest. The bill passed in the Assembly last year but remains two votes short in the Senate.
Even if it does pass, it needs Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature and wouldn’t go into effect until next year. In the meantime, Wiener supports the sites opening in San Francisco “as quickly as possible.”
“I’m fully supportive of the city moving forward, just like we did with needle exchange before it was technically legal,” Wiener said. “We need to do everything in our power to keep people healthy, to get people off the streets so they’re injecting in a safe space indoors instead of on people’s doorsteps or in public parks, and to make sure we can intervene quickly if they overdose.”
As for making San Francisco even more ripe for retribution from the Trump administration, Wiener said, “They’re already gunning for us in every conceivable way.”
What’s one more?