DON THOMPSON / Associated Press
The California Assembly on Thursday approved a controversial bill allowing Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco to set up places where opioid users could legally inject drugs in supervised settings.
The move follows more than a year of legislative consideration, with proponents saying it would save lives and detractors saying it would enable drug addiction.
The Assembly’s approval sends the bill back to the state Senate for final consideration in August, after lawmakers return from a monthlong summer recess. Senators approved a slightly different version more than a year ago, with no votes to spare.
The idea is to give people who would use drugs anyway a location to inject them while trained staff are available to help if they suffer accidental overdoses.
The move comes amid a national opioid crisis and spike in overdose deaths particularly if users inadvertently ingest drugs spiked with fentanyl.
New York City in December opened the first two publicly recognized overdose prevention sites in the United States, intervening in more than 150 overdoses, although its operation does not have federal approval to operate. Rhode Island approved testing such centers for two years.
The U.S. Justice Department under the Biden administration recently signaled it might be open to allowing the sites with “appropriate guardrails,” a turnaround from the Trump administration that won a lawsuit blocking a safe consumption site in Philadelphia.
The measure passed the Assembly on a 42-28 vote, one more vote than needed.
But it had bipartisan opposition amid a sometimes personal debate. Two members, Carlos Villapudua and Freddie Rodriguez, disclosed that their brothers had each died of complications from drug abuse, and they were among Democrats who spoke against the proposal.
“This is not the one thing that is going to stop the fentanyl or opioid epidemic in our state, but it will help. It will help, and it will save lives,” said Democratic Assemblyman Matt Haney, a former San Francisco supervisor who represented the troubled Tenderloin neighborhood and carried the bill in the Assembly.
But some members of each party said the sites only make things worse, as lawmakers cited dueling statistics from locations in other nations.
“Sending our kids the message that ‘Hey, we’re going to help you manage your drug addiction’ is not the answer,” said GOP Assemblyman Kelly Seyarto.
About 700 San Franciscans died of accidental drug overdoses in 2020, a record. Those deaths “far exceeded the number of individuals who died of COVID-19” in 2020, when 261 deaths from the coronavirus were recorded, San Francisco Mayor London Breed noted. She cited skyrocketing drug overdose rates in her declaration of an emergency in the Tenderloin neighborhood.
Los Angeles County was on pace to have 1,000 opioid deaths last year, though not all such deaths come from injections.
Across the nation, drug overdose deaths exceeded 100,000 from April 2020 to April 2021, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including about 10,000 Californians.