Vancouver is now the only city in North America with a safe injection site for drug users, but if some activists and public health officials have their way, San Francisco could be next. The city Public Health Department held an all-day symposium on the topic Thursday, and while public officials are keeping their distance, the symposium could be the first step in a push to bring the harm reduction measure to the US.
Currently, safe injection sites are operating in some 65 cities in eight countries -- mostly in Europe, but also in Australia and Canada. Such sites have been shown to reduce overdoses, needle sharing and the spread of blood-borne diseases like HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C, as well as petty crime and other social problems. They have also been shown to entice some clients into drug treatment without increasing overall drug use.
In San Francisco, drug overdoses are one of the leading causes of death and Hepatitis C is reaching epidemic levels, according to public health officials. The Public Health Department says it is not taking a position on safe injection sites, but merely wants to open a dialog on the topic.
"All we want to do is get input," the department's Grant Coffax told KGO News. "The department's goal is to get addicts, drug users, into treatment, to get them into treatment to reduce their harm, to get them ultimately to stop using," he said.
Still, the department sounds quite interested in the idea. "There are data that support the approach in terms of reducing overdoses and actually reducing discarded needles around the perimeter of these sites," Coffax pointed out.
San Francisco police are less enthused. "You would still have those people that are selling narcotics on the streets of San Francisco, that so often turn into violent confrontations, still being able to do that and facilitating that," said Deputy Police Chief Morris Tabak. As is so often the case with law enforcement officials, Tabak failed to note that the problems he described are a result of drug prohibition, not any quality inherent in the drugs or drug users themselves, or that the city already has to contend with street sales of those drugs now.
And the mayor's office is not exactly clamoring to get onboard with the idea, either. "The mayor is not inclined to support this approach, which quite frankly may end up creating more problems than it addresses, " spokesman Nathan Ballard told San Francisco Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius, who has been writing about the topic for the past couple of months.
That's no surprise to activists like Hilary McQuie, Western director of the Harm Reduction Coalition. "Down the road there will be a lot of strong feelings," she said. "It's a big topic, and we hope to start a conversation."
That conversation officially got underway yesterday, too late for details to make the Chronicle this week. Look for an update next week.