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Jeff Sessions just scared California into rejecting safe injection sites

Gov. Brown vetoed a bill authorizing them saying "it would be irresponsible to expose local officials and health care professionals to potential federal criminal charges."

by Emma Ockerman
Oct 1 2018, 3:56pm

California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a measure on Sunday that would’ve allowed San Francisco to authorize the nation’s first so-called “safe injection site,” which would allow drug users to safely consume and inject illegal drugs under the watch of medical personnel.

The veto came about a month after Department of Justice Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein warned local municipalities that anyone found maintaining or working in a place that exists for the purpose of using drugs could face up to 20 years in prison. “When drug users flock to a site, drug dealers follow, bringing with them violence and despair, posing a danger to neighbors and law-abiding visitors,” Rosenstein wrote.

But after Brown’s veto, San Francisco Mayor London Breed indicated the city would study other ways to open sites. "Despite this veto, we will continue to work with our community partners on trying to come up with a solution to move this forward," she said.

Cities across the country have studied opening safe injection sites, sometimes called “overdose prevention centers,” over the past few years but as yet none have become a reality. Some cities, such as Philadelphia and Seattle have faced bitter local opposition. New York City proposed installing four sites a few months ago, but they’d need the authorization of the state health department under Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who would have to be willing to skirt federal law. That left San Francisco — a liberal city in a state with a Trump-bashing governor — as the most likely candidate.

Read: Inside a safe injection site that breaks the law but prevents overdoses

But that ended with a veto on Sunday. In a statement following the veto, Brown said the threat of federal prosecution was decisive. “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 criminal charges,” he wrote in a veto message. But he also said the bill itself was flawed, adding “enabling illegal and destructive drug use will never work.”

Safe injection sites are plainly illegal under federal law, but harm prevention advocates are fighting for them, saying they’d save lives by preventing overdose deaths. They’re utilized in 10 countries around the world, including Canada, Australia, and Norway. The American Medical Association supports them. Overdose prevention centers are considered a supplement to services like medication-assisted treatment, mental health services and other public health measures that receive widespread support, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.

Read: The Senate is about to pass a fat stack of opioid bills. Advocates say it's not enough

The Department of Justice had cited the so-called “crack house” statute of the Controlled Substances Act, which makes it illegal to maintain a facility for the purpose of drug use or distribution.

Even so, there are some aspects of the Controlled Substances Act that states willfully ignore; marijuana possession is a federal crime, but the nine states (and the District of Columbia) that have legalized the drug for recreational use won’t pursue such charges.

Programs where drug users can turn in used needles for sterile syringes were also unable to receive federal funding when most cities — San Francisco included — rolled them out. And research has shown that there are already safe injection sites operating underground across the United States.

Read: How the GOP tax bill could lead to more drug overdoses

“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.”

Cover: Booth injection stations at Safer Inside, a realistic model of a safe injection site in San Francisco in a photo taken Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018. The model is an example of a supervised, indoor location where intravenous drug users can consume drugs in safer conditions and access treatment and recovery services. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)