Column: Newsom deepens drug war with ‘safe sites’ veto

Remember how great the last war on drugs was?

How in the 1980s we criminalized addiction and filled jails and jails with blacks and browns certain we could punish our way out of the crack epidemic – eventually reaching the point where 1 in 3 black men in America between 20 and 29 been incarcerated, on parole or on probation?

How have we separated families and sent a generation of children into foster care rather than helping their mothers seek treatment?

How were wealthy drug addicts protected from scrutiny inside their homes, glamorized for Hollywood blockbuster movies, while their poor counterparts were vilified as prostitutes, thieves and gangbangers?

Our obsession with all things 80s seems to have shifted from entertainment to public policy this week with Governor Gavin Newsom’s veto of Senate Bill 57, which would have allowed Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland to open safe and monitored drug consumption sites – at a time when an average of 18 Californians die every day from an opioid overdose, 6,843 lives lost in 2021.

We tried our hand at what experts call a “harm reduction” approach to addiction, guided by the philosophy that people need treatment, not cells. But the feet of our political leaders have turned cold, and they are returning to more familiar ground.

California, meet the new drug war, like the old drug war, too disturbingly.

Don’t expect this one to be more successful.

Over the past year, we have seen politicians in our state and at all levels of government respond to our frustration with homelessness, addictions and lack of affordable housing with the simplest and most less effective: repression.

Suppression of crime. Repression of camps. The crackdown on low-level dealers and users and street vendors who are just trying to sell bacon-wrapped hot dogs. The crackdown on illegal guns (OK, that one is good) and street gangs and sleeping on sidewalks near schools. The DMV even had a crackdown on illegal auto dismantlers.

Our politicians want us to know they’re getting tough, taking it seriously, making it happen – even if the truth is that it’s the same failures recycled, mitigated by current mores, but no more effective than they make it out to be. have ever been. Repression means criminalization, which means incarceration – and the endless turnover of our most vulnerable citizens being sucked in and spat out through the justice system again and again.

Already, San Francisco police have returned to citing people for possession of drug paraphernalia, a tactic straight out of 1984 championed by Mayor London Breed, who embraced the carnival of repression by declaring one in the Tenderloin earlier this year. At the same time, the suburban crisis where teenagers buy pills on Snapchat and die in their bedrooms, a tragedy that I in no way diminish, is handled in a totally different way.

Of course, many of our criminal justice reforms cannot be reversed so easily and provide protection against a real return to locked up justice. And our recognition of the systemic racism perpetuated by old drug laws — such as harsher penalties for crack cocaine than for cocaine — should make us think twice about increasing penalties for trafficking fentanyl and new, ever more deadly drug variants.

But the mentality that led us to follow another Californian, Ronald Reagan, deeper into the war on drugs – a mistaken need for performance rather than substance on the part of politicians – bubbles to the surface like the mud of a backed up sewer.

In his SB 57 veto message, Newsom said he “has long supported the cutting edge of harm reduction strategies” but was canceling this pilot program because while “it is possible that these sites could help improve safety and the health of our urban areas”, the risk of “unintended consequences was too great”.

It does, however, direct that cities and counties develop standards and best practices for open consumption sites and “stay open” to future proposals once this study is complete. Probably long after he left the governor’s office.

Newsom said he was most definitely, absolutely don’t run for president, but he’s clearly twisting himself into all sorts of political triangulations to give himself options, should the occasion arise.

Otherwise, why would he aim his media coverage far beyond our Golden State? More recently, his ads targeting Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Texas Governor Greg Abbott (and their responses) gave the three men a glorious bounce in their ability to reach a wider potential base. A recent nudge from our governor, dropped as part of “our new series Hypocrite or Fraudshows a more relaxed and less jargon-soaked Newsom attacking DeSantis for his stance against vaccination mandates, pointing out that Florida requires seven shots before children can attend public schools.

I understand the personal logic of the veto. Opening up safe drug consumption sites would be tantamount to clubbing his political foils and asking them to undermine his future. Fox News chyrons write themselves. Newsom legalizes hard drugs. Failed California opens drug dens. Newsom to drug addicts: the street is yours!

Tucker Carlson would have a blast. As a policy, safe consumer sites are a loser for Newsom. This veto is the clearest signal yet that he is considering a presidential election one day and has no intention of spoiling his chances with anything that might complicate his success.

Politics, however, is a different beast – a beast that thrives best on a diet of courage and clarity. There is nothing courageous in this veto, and its motivation overflows with opportunism. While saving lives is important, safe consumption sites are a necessity while we find the rest – in the same way that homeless shelters are a temporary need while we build housing.

To be honest, until I visited these safe sites in Vancouver, Canada, where they have been operating for decades, I was against them. They look awful, and in truth, they can be hard to see. It’s a room full of people who smoke and inject heroin, methamphetamine, fentanyl or combinations that would kill most of us with just one dose, but at which many of these struggling humans have built up a terrible tolerance.

Should they resign? Absolutely. Should addiction be a death sentence? No.

All safe injection sites do is keep a user alive for another day, in the hope that they will continue to breathe long enough to make a decision to stop using. That’s it. They are just triage centers for the injured. If no one dies inside a safe consumption site, it’s a success.

But I think politicians, including Newsom, are misinterpreting us. Yes, we are tired and weary of the heart of what we see in our streets. Yes, we want change. We don’t want needles in our playgrounds, smashed car windows or unconscious drug addicts lying on our sidewalks.

I don’t think many Californians want to go back to the war on drugs, or want to see those with substance use disorders criminalized or killed out of indifference. It tires us too.

I think we want policies that work. And while that may not play out in Kansas, Californians are sophisticated enough to understand that some corrections aren’t pretty. Vetoing safe consumption sites will not reduce drug use any more than arresting addicts. But it costs lives.

The bill’s author, Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, said after the veto that he probably wouldn’t bring the idea back unless the governor’s position changed. In the meantime, around 6,000 Californians – if not more – will continue to die of drug overdoses each year.

In our new war, or perhaps just this ongoing war that never really ended, these lives are collateral damage – victims as much of politics as of drugs.

Los Angeles Times

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