California governor vetoes bill to pay people to stay sober

Gov. Gavin Newsom has rejected a bill that would have made California the first state to pay people to stay sober.

But just because Newsom vetoed the bill by state Sen. Scott Wiener on Friday does not mean the drug treatment program won’t happen in California.

Newsom supports the treatment, known as "contingency management." But he wants to test it out first before signing a law to make it permanent.

The state budget, approved in July, includes money for a pilot program that begins in January and ends in March 2024. Newsom has asked the federal government for permission to pay for this pilot program. President Joe Biden’s administration — which has already signaled its interest in the program — will respond by the end of the year.

"The outcomes and lessons learned from the pilot project should be evaluated before permanently extending the Medi-Cal benefit," Newsom wrote in a veto message. "As such, this bill is premature."

People in the program are tested multiple times per week over a set period of time. Each time they test negative, they get a reward — sometimes as small as $2. People who make it all the way through the program with no positive tests usually earn a few hundred dollars and receive the money on a gift card.

The federal government has been using this treatment since at least 2011 for military veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Since then, research has shown it is the most effective treatment for drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine, for which there are few pharmaceutical treatments available.

Drug overdose deaths from substances like cocaine and methamphetamine in California nearly quadrupled between 2010 and 2019. Preliminary data from the first nine months of 2020 — when much of the state was locked down because of the coronavirus— shows stimulant overdose deaths jumped 42% compared to 2019.

Wiener said he was "deeply disappointed" with Newsom’s decision to veto the bill, saying the veto is "a setback in our effort to confront this epidemic" as people across the state are dying from meth overdoses.

"They’re dying right now. Time is of the essence. We know from more than a decade of data and experience that contingency management is highly effective in helping people stop using meth," Wiener said. "We don’t need pilot programs to tell us that."

Wiener’s bill easily passed the Legislature, with no one voting against it. Lawmakers could vote to override Newsom’s decision. But that’s likely won’t happen. The California Legislature has not overridden a governor’s veto since 1979.