Safe Injection Sites Save Lives

By Rachele Huennekens

Late Sunday evening, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed Assembly Bill 186, which would have allowed safe injection sites to be piloted in San Francisco under state law. Disappointingly, the Governor’s veto message echoed the same false frame as U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s Op-Ed last month, deceptively labeling safe injection sites as “centers” that “sponsor… illegal drugs.”

In fact, safe injection sites are evidence-based public health interventions and humane solutions to the opioid crisis. Safe injection sites would have prevented overdoses and diseases like Hepatitis, while connecting people who use drugs to medical care, counseling, and resources to help treat their addiction.

RALLY was proud to assist our client the GLIDE Foundation in hosting the Safer Inside community demonstration in August, with the vocal support of San Francisco Mayor London Breed.

While the Governor’s veto of AB 186 is disappointing, progress can be bumpy, and safe injection sites are worth fighting for. There are some communications lessons that might apply, as safe injection advocates push past this setback.

  1. Focus on health — The “harm-reduction” approach taken by safe injection sites is not much different than distributing condoms on a college campus to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted disease. San Francisco’s needle exchange program was also considered crazy when it first began in the 1990s, but is now an accepted health services model in the city and distributes more than 400,000 clean syringes each month. It has been adopted throughout the country. Emphasizing the clinically-proven health benefits of safe injection sites that have been studied in Vancouver, Canada and more than 60 other cities worldwide, can help make the case for bringing it here.
  2. Force leaders to face the facts of unsafe injection — The reality is, thousands of people use drugs including by injecting heroin and methamphetamines, and they do it in public places that are dirty and dangerous. As San Francisco Chronicle reporter Heather Knight put it, SF is “a city that’s already turned into one big unsafe injection site — dirty needles litter its sidewalks, BART trains and stations, playgrounds and pretty much everywhere else.” The situation is much the same in parts of L.A. and many other communities. Policymakers must face the facts and acknowledge that this problem isn’t magically going away.
  3. Humanity! — People make mistakes. And people who suffer trauma, struggle with addiction and drug use disorders, and/or become homeless, are still people. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, many of these people are actually our family members, friends and neighbors. So let’s recognize the humanity of people who inject drugs and treat them with the compassion, respect, and care that we would want if the roles were reversed.

Although the concept of safe injection services may seem new or extreme today, the opioid crisis and thousands of tragic overdoses demand that we do something. Here’s hoping that the next California Governor and Legislature embrace the idea of safe injection sites and take action to save lives.

RALLY is an issue-driven communications firm that takes on sticky political and social problems and finds ways to push them forward. Rachele Huennekens is an Account Manager in RALLY’s San Francisco office.