The San Francisco Health Commission is currently underway to open the first safe injection site in the United States. On Tuesday, the commission voted unanimously to support the opening of two sites where individuals can use drugs intravenously in a safe environment – an alarming and controversial topic in the midst of the opioid epidemic. The health commission endorsed the idea and are bringing it a step further to open doors. Officials say that these two sites could set to open as early as July 1st.
Additional cities including Seattle, Baltimore, Boston, Portland and Philadelphia have been in the talks to consider opening safe injection facilities but haven’t done so as of yet. Similar centers already exist outside the U.S. in Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Spain, Denmark, Luxembourg and France.
Activists in the city have worked years for this vote, arguing that it’s important to have these sites. These sites would include proper hygiene supplies, a trained staff, overdose interventions, proper needle disposal, and access to drug counseling and rehabilitation services.
Drug Use In The City
San Francisco has an estimated 22,500 intravenous drug users, often shooting up in public plazas, parks, and transit stations with no consequence. Most times lack of proper disposal causes users to leave dirty needles around them. For the public, it has become the norm to see people on sidewalks using needles.
According to the “Safe Injection Site Task Force Final Report,” City officials think 85 percent of drug users would use an injection facility if they could. Opening just one safe injection center with medical experts on site would reduce hospital stays by 415 days per year, as well as decrease cases of HIV and Hepatitis C. Officials additionally think this could potentially save the city $3.5 million in medical costs, given that it will be overseen by professionals and will hopefully reduce the need to call emergency responders.
Barbara Garcia, director of San Francisco’s Department of Public Health has been working on the idea for six years. However she has not made any headway until recently, and now is now combing out the fine details. These facilities have been proposed to be funded through private sources to avoid any potential liability for the City of San Francisco, since the sites will be operating in defiance of state and federal law. The facilities’ operators would be hand-selected from a small group of non-profits that already exist in operating needle exchange programs in the city.
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.
Additionally, lawmakers and prosecutors complain that allowing drug injection sites “normalize” heroin. Studies have shown that in practice, safe injection sites reduce overdoses and help marginalized users find access to health care, also noting that they do not lead to more drug use, drug trafficking, or crime.
While these sites should be no problem to open up due to the over-flooding of IV drug use in the city, the real issue is obtaining federal money, as intravenous drug use is against the law. The promotion of safe injection sites does mirror a past need for needle exchange programs in San Francisco in the late 1980’s. The city ended up declaring a state of emergency and defying state law by distributing clean needles. This led up to the program becoming legal in California in 2000.
What Others Are Saying
The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce conducts a “Dignity Health CityBeat Poll” each year, and for the first time this year it included a question about safe injection sites. The question asked respondents whether they support or oppose these sites 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 home-ownership. Progressives, liberals and moderates all backed the idea, though just 42 percent of self-described conservatives did.
The sites would reduce dirty needles and offer additional medical services, mental health services, and guidance on getting connected with other everyday resources, while contributing to the battle against the opioid crisis in the United States.
What do you think?