On Monday, California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed a measure that would have allowed supervised injection sites as part of a pilot program designed to combat the epidemic of drug overdose deaths. The bill, which would have set up safe-use clinics in San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles, passed the Democrat-controlled state legislature in August after nearly two years of debate.
Newsom’s veto alienated drug reform advocates and many of the Governor’s own key allies in the state capitol. It also contributed to increasing speculation over Newsom’s political future — specifically, whether he is positioning himself to run for president in 2024 should President Biden decline to run. Local and national political observers are asking the question: was the veto designed to insulate Newsom from the inevitable conservative attack that he is condoning drug use in far-left California?
In a letter explaining his veto, the Governor wrote, “I have long supported the cutting edge of harm reduction strategies. However, I am acutely concerned about the operations of safe injection sites without strong, engaged local leadership and well-documented, vetted, and thoughtful operational and sustainability plans.”
That rationale didn’t sit well with State Sen. Scott Wiener, who represents Newsom’s home district of San Francisco and sponsored the safe injection legislation. “This is now a year-and-a-half that the bill has been in print and we did not receive any requests for amendments,” Wiener told Politico.
“We don’t need a working group or additional dialogue or study when it comes to safe consumption sites,” Wiener said in a separate interview with NPR. “We have decades of data and experience. We know how to stop people from dying, and yet we just haven’t had the political will.”
The move was somewhat surprising coming from Newsom, who has been known for taking bold stances on hot-button issues that often draw the ire of social conservatives. It was Newsom who, as mayor of San Francisco in 2004, began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in City Hall. The marriages were later voided by the California Supreme Court, and even progressive allies thought Newsom’s aggressive tactics set the LGBTQ rights movement back. Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, then the highest-profile openly-gay legislator in the United States, called the “spectectable weddings” a “mistake” that energized Republican voters ahead of that year’s presidential election.
But by the time Newsom ran for governor in 2018, same-sex marriage had been the law of the land for over three years, and his actions in 2004 looked courageous and ahead-of-the-curve. So, too, did Newsom’s work in 2008 to create a universal health care program in San Francisco.
Despite that reputation, political strategists say that safe injection sites posed too many political downsides heading into a potential presidential campaign. “If you put in these safe injection sites and they work, you basically never hear about it again,” Jim Ross, a San Francisco-based political consultant who has worked for Newsom, told Politico. “But if a year or two from now these programs are in place and they’re driving more overdoses, there’s issues like that, that’s when you get political fallout.”
Putting the politics aside, should there be more safe-use drug consumption sites? Dozens of studies suggest that the safe-use clinics reduce deaths and increase participation in drug treatment. The growing body of research draws on decades of data from similar programs in Canada, Australia, and Europe.
Street drugs are illegal under federal law, but for about the past 10 months, two safe injection sites have been operating in New York City. In two neighborhoods — East Harlem and Washington Heights — healthcare workers provide clean needles and administer naloxone to stop overdoses. They also offer avenues for longer-term addiction treatment. The site’s operators say that they have intervened to save over 300 lives since the start of the program. A similar overdose prevention center in Vancouver, which has been open for nearly two decades, sees about 400 users a day, and makes about 1,500 overdose interventions a year.
In February, the Department of Justice signaled that it may be open to allowing safe injection sites, telling the Associated Press, “[T]he Department is evaluating supervised consumption sites, including discussions with state and local regulators about appropriate guardrails for such sites, as part of an overall approach to harm reduction and public safety.”
Critics say that safe injection sites encourage drug use. State Rep. James Gallagher, the Republican leader of the California State Assembly, said before Newsom vetoed the bill, “I am amazed that it needs to be pointed out that enabling the behavior of drug addicts is a bad thing. Democrats have given up on governing, so they are actively promoting crime instead.”
For his part, Newsom didn’t criticize the substance of the proposal but rather its scope, saying that the “unlimited number of safe injection sites that this bill would authorize … could induce a world of unintended consequences.”
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