Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
California lawmakers are debating whether to open sites where people can inject or snort illegal drugs under the watchful eye of a healthcare worker. These facilities are an effort to save lives as overdoses soar across the country.
“Instead of people doing drugs on the sidewalk when your kid walks by, we want to give them a place they can get in,” said State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, the sponsor of a bill to pilot facilities in Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Wiener points out that so-called “safe drinking” or “supervised injection sites” would not only prevent overdoses, but also slow the spread of HIV and hepatitis by providing clean syringes.
The last time supervised injection facilities were on the table in California, in 2018, the bill made its way through Governor Jerry Brown’s office. He vetoed it. Wiener tries again. He points to a recent cost-benefit analysis showing that every dollar spent on safe drinking in San Francisco would save the city $2.33.
“Our hospitals, our emergency rooms, our fire departments, our ambulances all spend huge resources on people who overdose,” Wiener said.
Gary McCoy, who was once a heroin and then methamphetamine addict, says he wished he had a safe place to shoot before he hit rock bottom and died.
He first overdosed on heroin at the age of 18 at a gas station. The store attendant called 911 when McCoy crawled deliriously out of the bathroom and collapsed.
“I immediately went back to my dealer from the hospital and bought everything she had because she was the best heroin I’ve ever made,” he said.
At the time, McCoy was struggling with his sexuality in a conservative Virginia town.
“I wasn’t quite in the closet,” McCoy said. “But I wasn’t really open about the fact that I was gay.”
He spent the next decade in the ups, homeless and on the brink. At 24, McCoy learned he was HIV-positive. He was staying alone in a cheap hotel in San Francisco. It was Christmas Eve.
“I weighed 110 pounds, psoriasis was all over my body, I injected daily, couch surfed when I could and traded sex for drugs or a place to sleep.”
When he had nowhere to shoot, McCoy used restrooms in public libraries.
“I think if I had a place to go where I could use it safely, where people could see that I needed medical assistance, I think it would have saved a lot of trauma,” he said. -he declares.
McCoy says he spent a lot of time in jail spread over numerous arrests and landed in the ER every month for at least a decade as his drug habits and AIDS ravaged his body.
A safe consumption site can range from a converted RV to a sprawling warehouse. Inside, it generally looks a bit like a barbershop, with mirrors lining the walls, individual booths for each customer, and sterile supplies arranged on steel counters.
“You will have two bedrooms,” said Alex Kral, an epidemiologist for the nonprofit research group RTI International. “The first room is where people can inject under supervision. And then you have a second room where people can basically relax after using drugs and be watched.”
Healthcare workers equipped with “crash carts” filled with naloxone and other life-saving tools stand ready to prevent fatal overdoses. The aim is also to inspire people to seek care and connect them to primary care and social services.
Rhode Island gave the green light to supervised injection sites last year, but nothing has been started yet. New York City opened two sites last fall. Worldwide, more than 100 secure consumption sites exist in more than ten countries.
“There have probably been tens of millions of injections people have had at these sites over the past 35 years,” Kral said. “And no one has ever died of an overdose.”
Yet in the past year alone, more than 10,000 people in California and more than 100,000 people nationwide died of drug overdoses on the streets, at parties or at home.
“This number is really understated because there are parts of the country that don’t have the resources to do drug screenings with every death,” said Ron Brooks, president of the National Narcotic Officers’ Associations Coalition. .
He estimates the exact count could be as high as 140,000 deaths nationwide, which is why he says the overdose crisis is the most significant public health epidemic facing the country. However, Brooks does not support opening “safe drinking sites” to address the problem because, he says, there is no safe way to get high.
“You can call it whatever you want to call it. It’s an open drug scene,” Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said. “The fact that we are considering allowing our government to aid and abet the illicit use of drugs that kill our citizens, I find shocking.”
Schubert would prefer to see more court-ordered treatment. She says the current law does not allow judges to require enough people to seek help.
However, Gary McCoy says you can’t force sobriety. When he finally limped into treatment, AIDS had nearly wiped out his immune system. In fact, he was in such terrible shape that his drug dealer eventually pushed him to seek help, which is why he’s now a strong advocate for supervised injection sites.
“I don’t know if I would have stopped using sooner, but I definitely would have been in much better hands,” he said.
These days, on morning walks in his San Francisco neighborhood, McCoy chats with people getting high on the streets. It lets them know there is help available – that’s the critical boost that outreach workers at safe consumption sites could provide.
The California state assembly still needs to pass the bill before it goes to Governor Gavin Newsom, who would decide whether or not to sign it. If passed, the pilot sites would be in operation until Jan. 1, 2027. While the facilities are open, officials would collect data to determine their effectiveness.