California mulls allowing safe spaces for IV drug users

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A bill in Sacramento would make California the first state in the country where drug users could be provided with a place to inject. The bill's author says the measure is aimed at reducing overdoses and other problems caused by drug abuse.

"In the U.S. we have criminalized rather than treated addiction as a medical or social issue," said Assemblywoman Susan Eggman (D-Stockton). "Our prisons are full of people suffering from issues of addiction. Being able to provide a safe place for someone to use also increases the likelihood that they [will] get into rehab."

Eggman's bill would allow cities and counties to authorize the creation of facilities "supervised by healthcare professionals or other trained staff where people who use drugs can consume preobtained drugs, sterile consumption supplies, and access to referrals to addiction treatment." 

Several countries provide supervised settings for injection drug use, but federal law makes it difficult in the U.S. Eggman points to injection spaces in Vancouver as evidence that the approach can work safely.

Studies have found supervised injection services reduced the overdose frequency and did not increase drug use or crime in the surrounding area. 

"To ignore the fact that people are injecting drugs and dying on the streets is not to me either a responsible or humane way to look at this," Eggman said. 

"Given the rates of overdose deaths that we've seen in California over the last few years we feel like the time is now for cities in California to be able to open and operate these types of programs to help save lives," said Laura Thomas, deputy state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, one of the organizations co-sponsoring the legislation. 

There were more than 3,400 opioid-related deaths in California in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Thomas points out that Seattle and Kings County, Washington, are also moving ahead with a pilot project that would establish supervised spaces for injection drug use.

This isn't the first time Eggman has tried to legalize supervised injection facilities. A similar bill she introduced last year died in committee. 

The California Police Chief's Association opposed that bill, arguing that it would "put California law enforcement in the inappropriate position of enforcing a state law at odds with federal law." The Association has not yet responded to a request for comment on the new measure.

The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department is yet to take a formal position on the bill, although it has similar concerns, said Sgt. Brandon Epp of the department's legislative unit. The department would most likely "lean towards opposition" because the legislation would put it "in direct conflict with our federal partners," he says.

The sheriff's department supports "identifying those who need the help and getting them the help they need rather than a safe place for them to continue their habit," Epp said. 

The plan to set up supervised drug use sites in Seattle and Kings County has run into opposition in the state legislature. In January, a Republican state senator introduced a bill that would block such sites from being set up.

"Standing idly by while addicts abuse illegal drugs is not compassionate, and it does not solve the problem," state Sen. Mark Miloscia said in a statement.

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