California Governor Jerry Brown has been rebuked by health experts for vetoing legislation that would have permitted San Francisco to open the US’ first legal drug consumption room (DCR).
On September 30, Brown – a Democrat – announced that he had blocked the initiation of a DCR pilot programme which would have allowed people to use drugs with sterile equipment, in a safe space, and in the presence of medical professionals. By providing such amenities, DCRs reduce overdose deaths and reduce the spread of infectious diseases – including HIV. They also provide an opportunity for marginalised people – particularly homeless people – to engage with support staff and learn about treatment options.
DCRs currently operate in Canada, Australia, and eight European countries – no one has ever died from an overdose in one. Nonetheless, Governor Brown made a unilateral move to block the introduction of this life-saving measure.
According to the New York Times, Brown said: "Fundamentally I do not believe that enabling illegal drug use in government sponsored injection centres — with no corresponding requirement that the user undergo treatment – will reduce drug addiction."
The key goal of the planned DCR was, however, not for reducing “drug addiction”, but for reducing drug overdoses and related harms – which are soaring in California. As such, he has been sharply criticised by advocacy groups, including Project Inform – an organisation seeking to improve the welfare of people with HIV and Hepatitis C.
“The veto, and the stigmatizing language he uses in his explanation for his decision, represent an archaic, failed approach to drug use that dates back to Richard Nixon’s rationale for starting the war on drugs,” warned Andrew Reynolds, Project Inform's Hepatitis C and Harm Reduction Manager. “Far from ‘enslaving’ or ‘enabling’ drug use, overdose prevention sites are proven, evidence-based interventions that save lives, prevent HIV and HCV infections, and create opportunities for medical care and social services. People will die and Californians will suffer because of his decision.”
The sentiment was echoed by Laura Thomas, Interim State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance: “How many people have to die before Governor Brown is willing to listen to the science and evidence and experience? How many families have to lose a loved one?”
Like many other US states, California is in the midst of an overdose crisis, primarily fuelled by people opioid-related deaths. Drug overdoses have overtaken motor vehicle incidents as the leading cause of accidental death in the state.
Drug consumption rooms remain illegal under federal law in the US, as national law states that it is unlawful to “knowingly open, lease, rent, use, or maintain any place [for the purpose of] using any controlled substance”. However, the now-vetoed law would have prevented state prosecutors within California from going after people who operated or accessed the DCR. This approach is not dissimilar to the state’s approach to cannabis; the drug is legally produced and distributed under state law, despite federal law prohibiting such actions.
The blocking of this bill is one of Governor Brown’s last decision as governor, as he is due to step down in January 2019, following an election in November of this year. Neither of his two potential successors have declared their opinion on DCRs as yet.