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California Gov. Newsom vetoes public safe drug-use clinics as overdoses surge

Gov. Gavin Newsom
Brontë Wittpenn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
Gov. Gavin Newsom

Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a measure late Monday that would have allowed creation of safe drug-consumption sites in three major California cities as part of an effort to cut the surging number of fatal overdoses.

In a public message explaining his veto, Newsom, a Democrat, suggested the clinics might actually encourage illegal drug use.

"Worsening drug consumption challenges ... is not a risk we can take," Newsom wrote.

He called for state and local officials to convene a new discussion of safe drug-use sites aimed at creating a "truly limited" pilot program.

The veto enraged drug policy reform advocates, who noted that Newsom has voiced support for safe drug-consumption sites in the past.

Critics also note the measure passed California's Democrat-controlled state legislature in early August after nearly two years of debate.

During that time, Newsom raised no public objections to the bill.

"We don't need a working group or additional dialogue or study when it comes to safe consumption sites," said Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener, the bill's primary sponsor, who represents San Francisco, where one of the clinics would have been located.

"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," Wiener said.

The bill would have allowed Oakland, Los Angeles, and San Francisco to develop safe-use clinics in a pilot program that would have operated during the next five years. It would have been by far the largest overdose reduction effort of its kind in the United States.

"It's a daily tragedy," Wiener said. "Each and every person who dies of a drug overdose is a human being ... who had a life at one point and we are abandoning them."

Jeannette Zanipatin with the Drug Policy Alliance said there's no evidence overdose-reduction programs like the ones proposed in California increase drug use.

"For folks to continue talking about this as a way to enable substance users, to open a drug den, just really fails to recognize the dignity that substance users and this community really need," Zanipatin said.

Nationwide, roughly 109,000 people are dying every year from drug overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Advocates hoped the California program would help shift the national conversation away from drug criminalization toward improved medical care with access to doctors, nurses and treatment.

Similar programs have operated for decades in a handful of other countries, including Canada. Two safe drug-consumption sites are operating in New York City, without state or federal authorization.

Some local officials have suggested cities in California move forward to establish drug-injection clinics without state approval, but such a move would come with real legal risks.

One question nationally is how the federal government will respond to programs of this kind.

Street drugs remain illegal under federal law, but the Justice Department is negotiating with a group that hopes to open a safe-use clinic in Philadelphia.

If some kind of deal is reached there, that could be a game-changer.

Meanwhile, Wiener said California's statewide initiative is dead after Newsom's veto.

"I won't put my colleagues through that again," he said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.

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