The proposal was well thought and empirically backed: According to the principles of harm reduction, the best perspective we have on saving lives that could be claimed by drugs and alcohol, a safe injection site in San Francisco would be a good idea (so would legalizing opioids, but we live in this world, not in a better one.)
Then, Governor Brown, in an incomprehensible statement, vetoed a California bill that would enable San Francisco to pursue a four-year pilot with a safe injection site.
Before we move on to thinking how San Francisco could get around this veto–and I believe it could–let’s pause for a moment. Why would Brown veto the proposal? Surely not to curry favor with conservative and moderate California voters–he is not running for reelection. Surely not to curry favor with the Trump administration (we’ve done our very best, and justifiably so, in the opposite direction.) Surely not to support thoughtful, evidence-based reform, which this proposal surely is. What is going on? Honestly, I don’t know, and feel free to chime in with comments.
The key to a possible safe injection site lies in the fragmentation of policing and prosecution. As I explained elsewhere, policing in America is conducted on the municipal level. Prosecution is conducted on the county level. San Francisco is one of those rare locations where city and county overlap.
To the extent that the San Francisco District Attorney’s office and SFPD are on the same page, there is nothing to prevent San Francisco from establishing enforcement priorities that deemphasize opioid enforcement within a particular area of the city (a-la Hamsterdam from The Wire.)
What Would SF Hamsterdam Entail?
That depends. Hamsterdam could feature merely a lesser-enforcement area, where law enforcement commit to getting involved only if there’s violence (agreements like that have been worked out in other contexts, such as Operation Ceasefire.) We would need to carefully thing about protecting the status of employees and volunteers from the helping professions who might offer treatment, 12-step programs, and clean needles at the site, and how to best protect them, and if there’s a way to protect them as well, Hamsterdam could feature treatment options as well.
But Won’t the Feds Sweep In and Arrest Everyone?
That also depends–this time on how high we are on Jeff Sessions’ shit list. Arguably, fairly high–this vile administration has not shied away from attempting to penalize us for our sanctuary city policy–but having a concentrated DEA presence at a municipality might require more energy than the DOJ is willing to spend on a few folks addicted to opioids, with the possible lack of enthusiasm on the part of federal district judges (I’m not sure this is true–Mona Lynch’s work has shown judges with a great appetite for draconian sentencing of drug offenders with microscopic quantities, but her book does not cover Northern California.)
What’s important to keep in mind, though, is that our status vis-á-vis the feds is the same whether or not there’s a state law kosherizing the safe injection site. Possession of narcotics is a federal offense whether or not sanctioned by the state, and we obviously do not have the kind of understanding we used to have with the Obama administration about proper federal priorities in this regard. Even had Brown signed the bill into law, Sessions and the DEA would be able to sweep in, arrest people, and charge them federally with drug laws. Nor do I think the lack of a state law is likely to make them hungrier for these kinds of prosecutions–I think they abhor our state and our city with comparable ferocity (this, by the way, makes Brown’s veto even more puzzling.)
Can Jerry Punish Us for Going Through With It?
Theoretically, yes. There is no realistic scenario in which state law enforcement descends upon San Francisco and arrest safe injection patients; for one thing, they would have to be prosecuted in San Francisco absent a change of venue motion. There is, however, the possibility of monetary sanctions or withholding of state funds. But it’s hard to see Brown committed to punish San Francisco for going through with this. He has bigger battles to wage in the month he has left in office.
Should We Try Again After November?
DEFINITELY. I think Gavin Newsom will be open to this idea. He has been consistently pro-legalization in the marijuana context and might sign this into law. He is also advocating for an openly anti-Trump position at the gubernatorial mansion, and sticking a thumb in the eye of Trump by approving this plan statewide might play into his symbolic resistance to the feds.
Bottom line: Activists, do not despair. There is plenty we can do to win both this battle and the overall war against the war on drugs.