The California Senate took new strides in the effort to control the steep increase in drug overdose deaths this week with the passage of legislation to authorize safe consumption sites in the state. The measure, Senate Bill 57 from Democratic Senator Scott Wiener, was passed by the Senate on Monday after receiving the approval of the California State Assembly a month earlier. The bill now heads to the desk of Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom for consideration.
“Every overdose death is preventable,” Wiener said after the legislation was passed by the state Assembly on June 30. “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.”
SB-57 authorizes four local jurisdictions to operate overdose prevention programs, also known as safe consumption sites or safe injection sites, as a five-year pilot program. The legislation provides approval for such facilities in Los Angeles County and the cities of San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles. A statement from Wiener’s office noted that the city councils or board of supervisors in all four jurisdictions had requested to be included in the legislation.
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. The facilities 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 eight other countries for years, with no overdose deaths among people using the facilities recorded.
The legislation passed this week also includes protections for professionals who work at the authorized safe injection sites, exempting them from professional discipline, civil liability, and existing criminal penalties due to good-faith conduct and actions under the overdose prevention program. The Medical Board of California and the Osteopathic Medical Board of California would still be permitted to take disciplinary action against licensed medical professionals under the bill.
Wiener’s bill was passed as California and the nation continue to suffer the effects of an epidemic of overdose deaths, largely fueled by the opioid crisis and the introduction of fentanyl into the illicit drug supply. In May, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that 107,000 people died of a drug overdose last year, setting a grisly new record for drug-related deaths in the country. And in California, overdose deaths spiked by 83% from 2017 to 2020, according to CDC data.
Late last year, civic officials in New York City announced that the city had opened the first publicly recognized overdose prevention centers. 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. As in other safe injection sites around the world, no overdose deaths have occurred at New York’s facilities, leading city leaders to call for nationwide support for overdose prevention centers from the Biden administration.
But opening safe injection sites has been a challenge in many communities because of provisions of federal law that prohibit providing a location for the use of illegal drugs. Shane Pennington, an attorney with the law firm Vicente Sederberg LLP, said that action on authorizing safe consumption sites across the country is needed at the federal level.
“The Biden administration promised to bring harm-reduction strategies to the fight against the U.S. overdose epidemic. Safe consumption sites are one such strategy that mountains of evidence proves saves lives,” Pennington wrote in an email to High Times. “The fact that the Federal government is inexplicably dragging its feet in implementing that strategy should not cause the states to do the same. Safe consumption sites save lives. I hope the Governor signs the California bill into law and other states pass similar life-saving measures as soon as possible.”
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