San Francisco considers safe injection sites

San Francisco public health officials are taking steps to create safe injection sites for drug users in the city.

The city has already created a task force to explore whether creating a supervised injecting facility for drug users in San Francisco could reduce overdose deaths and other impacts of drug use and help get users into treatment.

The 15-member task force has been meeting regularly with leaders to develop a report for the Board of Supervisors on the feasibility and potential costs and benefits of a possible safe injection site.

The task force recently conducted a survey of injection drug users in San Francisco. The survey found 50% of those used heroin, and 34% used methamphetamine.

More than two thirds of the users were homeless, with about one third living in the Tenderloin.

According to the San Francisco Examiner, some San Francisco public health and police officials are scheduled to tour a safe injection site in Vancouver next month.

The debate right now is over whether to keep the safe injection sites open just during business hours, or open 24 hours as they are in other countries.

Officials are also considering providing food, showers and mental health counseling as an added incentive to use a safe injection site.

The city;s safe injection task force will review more of the results of the survey at their meeting in August. 

Board president London Breed, who introduced legislation creating the task force in February, said the city needs to look at new ways to address the public health crisis of addiction, which is highly visible in the Civic Center area around City Hall and other parts of the city.

"Inaction is not a solution, inaction is not an option," Breed said today. "This is too big of an issue for us to rule out a possibility without at least studying it and understanding it first."

San Francisco public health officials estimate the city has around 22,000 injecting drug users and around 100 overdose deaths a year, mostly from heroin and opiates.

Sitting in San Francisco's U.N. Plaza, one man told us he's been injecting heroin two to three times a day for the past three years.

He says he doesn't like anyone to see him shoot up, especially little kids.

"No child should have to experience anything like that," he said. "Gets it off the streets and into a safe spot where you have doctors and professional staff. That's the way to do it," said the addict who says his name is Adam.

Safe injection sites, which allow users to inject drugs in a clean, medically supervised setting, are intended to help prevent overdose deaths, reduce the spread of HIV, hepatitis C and bacteria-resistant infections, keep needles off the streets and provide users with access to drug treatment options and other social services.

A 2016 cost-benefit analysis found the city could save around $3.5 million a year by opening a safe injection site because of reduced health care costs and increased drug treatment uptake.

Around 100 safe injecting sites exist in countries including Canada, France, Australia and Denmark. One is in the works in Seattle, but none have yet opened in the United States, where political opposition has until recently been stiff.

Breed, whose own sister died of a drug overdose, said she had recently visited a safe injecting site operating in Vancouver and been impressed by what she saw. The site there has referred more than 3,500 people
to drug treatment and saved the city around $1.8 million in its first year.

Laura Thomas, deputy state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said a group of community advocates and Tenderloin neighborhood service providers first started working on the proposal 10 years ago. That effort has
since evolved into the launch today of a new coalition, Yes to SCS California, representing 22 local organizations.

"We're really excited that [Breed] has stepped forward to really move this conversation forward to the next level," Thomas said.