Richard Chenery rests after injecting heroin at the Insite clinic in Vancouver, B.C., North America’s first legal injection site.
SF safe injection sites expected to be first in nation, open around July 1
San Francisco is on track to open its first two safe injection sites this July, a milestone that will likely make the city the first in the country to embrace the controversial model of allowing drug users to shoot up under supervision.
Other cities — including Seattle, Baltimore and Philadelphia — are talking about opening their own safe injection facilities, but San Francisco could get there first. Facilities already exist in Canada, Australia and Europe.
Barbara Garcia, director of San Francisco’s Department of Public Health, said Monday that she’s tending to the details, including where the facilities will be located. She’s working with six to eight nonprofits that already operate needle exchanges and offer other drug addiction services, and two of them will be selected to offer safe injection on-site.
The city’s fiscal year starts July 1, and Garcia said safe injection should begin “close to that date.” After officials get a sense of how the first two are working, a third and fourth could open, she said.
The safe injection sites will initially be privately funded, though Garcia wouldn’t say where the money’s coming from. She said that will help the city avoid liability, since intravenous drug use is against state and federal law. Opening the sites doesn’t require the approval of the Board of Supervisors or other city officials.
Asked whether opening the country’s first safe injection sites would place an even bigger target on San Francisco for retribution by the Trump administration, Garcia didn’t sound too concerned.
“That’s to be seen,” she said. “I’m more worried about people dying in our streets.”
It’s a legitimate worry. Today’s San Francisco is one big unsafe injection site, as many of the city’s estimated 22,000 intravenous drug users openly shoot up in plazas, parks and public transit stations with no consequence, often strewing their dirty needles around them. It’s become the norm to see people on our sidewalks in broad daylight sticking needles in just about every body part.
The safe injection sites could mean fewer dirty needles on the streets, since they’d be collected inside. Public health officials believe that 85 percent of the city’s intravenous drug users would use safe injection sites and that the city could save $3.5 million a year in medical costs.
Garcia has been working on the idea for six years and had made little headway until recently. Now, residents and City Hall alike have finally warmed up to what was once a taboo idea.
The Chamber of Commerce’s Dignity Health CityBeat Poll is conducted every year, and for the first time this year included a question about safe injection sites. It asked respondents whether they support or oppose “drop-in facilities called safe injection sites where intravenous drug users could use their drugs, off the street, and in a place where medical and social services are available.”
Sixty-seven percent of respondents said they back the idea — 45 percent strongly and 22 percent somewhat. Twenty-seven percent opposed it, and 6 percent didn’t know. The poll found support for the sites regardless of age or homeownership. Progressives, liberals and moderates all backed the idea, though just 42 percent of self-described conservatives did.