Santa Cruz Removed from Harm Reduction Bill

Opposing views on safe injection sites stall action

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When a news article naming Santa Cruz County as a potential safe drug consumption site reached the attention of the Board of Supervisors, board members were shocked. Within days, before any committee or awareness meeting could be formed, city activists filled the mailboxes and voicemails of board members, demanding Santa Cruz County be removed from the bill.

Assembly Bill 186, a bill proposing a safer drug consumption program, would legalize the creation of supervised drug consumption sites in named counties for people ages 18 or older. While the bill would legalize the creation of safe injection sites within the listed counties, it would not mandate them.

Illustration by Breyer Hodge

Originally the counties named in the bill were Alameda, Fresno, Humboldt, Los Angeles, Mendocino, San Francisco, San Joaquin and Santa Cruz counties. The author amended the bill to remove Fresno County and, at the request of the Board of Supervisors, Santa Cruz County. AB 186 will be revisited on the Senate floor in January.

“It wasn’t until there was an article in the newspaper that anybody on the board of supervisors or in the Health [Services] Agency even knew that we were included in the bill,” said First District Supervisor John Leopold, who sees the need for more harm reduction programs but thinks Santa Cruz is not ready to establish safe injection sites.

While the bill originally encompassed all of California, the authors received pushback from California leadership and particular counties were selected without being notified due to their prior participation in drug-related harm reduction programs, Leopold said. He believes the author shouldn’t have added counties to the bill without notifying them.

“There was not a community conversation that was very mature about the drug problem we have in our community,” Leopold said. “There had been no outreach to the groups that are working with the drug-using population and there had been no public health research shared with anybody.”

Members of Take Back Santa Cruz (TBSC), a community activist group, were enraged that Santa Cruz was named in the bill without notice to Santa Cruz community members, Leopold said. Group members urged the county’s board of supervisors to request Santa Cruz County be removed from the bill because of the lack of public health research on the effects of safe injection sites. There are no safe injection sites currently operating in the U.S., but safe injection sites have been established in Europe since 1986.

“We simply believe programs should be in place that have a proven measure of success in helping addicts get off drugs,” TBSC stated in a news release. “The cost of rehabilitating one addict and turning them into a contributing member of society, we believe, is far less than allowing the addict to continue with their negative lifestyle that contributes nothing to their own well-being or to society’s.”

A similar program in Vancouver, British Columbia, a city with a much larger population than Santa Cruz County, costs about 2 million Canadian dollars a year to operate. TBSC members also stated the program would encourage addicts to migrate to Santa Cruz, which would stretch out the already slim resources for people with addictions, especially those who are houseless.

However, in Canada safe injection sites are already well established. Vancouver’s Insite Supervised Injection Center has received nearly 3.5million visits since it opened its doors in 2003. In 2015 it received an average of 722 patients a day with 262 patients completing drug treatment over the course of the year. Since its opening, no one has died of an overdose due to close monitoring of patients.

Santa Cruz has a long history of involvement with harm reduction programs for drug users. Santa Cruz County was one of the first to pilot the Naloxone drug trial. Naloxone is a drug that reduces the effects of opioid use in the case of an overdose. The county also administers a Syringe Services Program, which provides new sanitary needles to drug users while also providing a safe place for disposal. This program, however, does not oversee dosage or sanitation of drug use.

“There are people who can go through treatment five, six times but if they slip then they are at their biggest risk of dying,” said Santa Cruz County Community Prevention Partners member Denise Elerick. Drug users can then overdose by taking a dosage they think the body is used to, even if that is no longer the case, she said. Elerick is in favor of AB 186, but believes it needs to be researched more before it is implemented in the county.

In 2015, there were 58 drug- related deaths in Santa Cruz County and 79 percent of these deaths were because of accidental overdoses, which could be prevented by safe injection sites.

“It’s hard to talk about a safe injection site without talking about the larger issue of harm reduction within an epidemic. Harm reduction is a lot more than a syringe exchange and syringe services,” Elerick said. “The nation and states like California are starting to take a broader look at what harm reduction could be and that could be something like a safe injection site.”