Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed legislation Monday that would have allowed people in three of California’s largest cities on a trial basis to use illegal drugs under medical supervision, a divisive and politically risky strategy to address a relentless wave of addiction and overdoses.
In rejecting the measure, Newsom expressed concern about what he called the “unintended consequences” of allowing an unlimited number of supervised consumption sites without additional safeguards. It was a perilous decision for him as he takes steps to raise his national profile, pitting his progressive ideals and allies against opponents and members of his own party who viewed the bill as enabling drug use.
“It is possible that these sites would help improve the safety and health of our urban areas, but if done without a strong plan, they could work against this purpose,” he said. “These unintended consequences in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland cannot be taken lightly. Worsening drug consumption challenges in these areas is not a risk we can take.”
The governor directed state health authorities and local officials to come up with a more detailed and less expansive plan. “I remain open to this discussion when those local officials come back to the Legislature with recommendations for a truly limited pilot program,” he said.
State lawmakers have debated the idea each year since 2016, a recurring struggle between progressive lawmakers who say it will save lives and moderate Democrats and Republicans who warn it would normalize hard drug use. Supporters hoped Newsom, who has said in the past he was receptive to the concept, would support this latest version from a San Franscisco state senator considered a rising star in his own right.
The legislation aimed to authorize the five-year pilot programs in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles, cities where drug use has contributed to an increase in property crime and homelessness that have tested the tolerance of generally liberal Californians.
Newsom, who had been under intense pressure for weeks, kept a close hold on whether he would sign the legislation, and the announcement was met with both surprise and anger by people on both sides of the debate. He had until Monday to decide.
Approval of the bill, CA SB57(21R) by state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), would have amounted to the nation’s largest experiment with the supervised injection model, where users can get access to clean needles, testing and treatment services. New York City opened the first one in the nation in November, and other cities have similar plans in the face of the relentless opioid crisis and record number of overdoses.
Wiener called the veto a missed opportunity.
“Today, California lost a huge opportunity to address one of our most deadly problems,” he said in a statement. “The dramatic escalation in drug overdose deaths. By rejecting a proven and extensively studied strategy to save lives and get people into treatment, this veto sends a powerful negative message that California is not committed to harm reduction.”
A veto by the progressive governor, who in 2018 described himself as “very, very open” to the supervised injection in concept, sets
a new path for Newsom, a leader who has taken strong stances other issues that have run afoul of federal law such as same-sex marriage and cannabis.
California, once poised to be out front on this issue, has been edged out by Rhode Island, the first to approve the sites, and New York City, which opened two sites late last year.
The effort to sanction what are often referred to as supervised consumption or overdose prevention centers has been years in the works in California. State Sen. Susan Eggman (D-Stockton), when she was in the Assembly, tried three times since 2016 to pass such legislation. One version of the bill, limited to San Francisco, made it to former Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk in 2018, but he vetoed it.
Law enforcement groups have been lobbying against the bill, arguing that it would fuel the opioid epidemic by sanctioning “drug dens” that exacerbate the illegal activity and crime near the sites. Opponents have argued they will not only be ineffective, but exacerbate drug use and illegal activity in the surrounding areas.
Supporters of this approach, however, contend the sites will help combat the explosion of opioid-related overdose deaths in California and around the country. More than 5,500 Californians have died of opioid-related overdoses since 2020.
More than 107,000 Americans died from drug overdoses last year, according to the most recent estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 71,000 of those deaths involved fentanyl or other synthetic opioids, a 23 percent increase from the previous year.