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SAN FRANCISCO -- The California Assembly has passed a bill allowing San Francisco to open a facility where people can use illegal drugs under supervision, despite opposition from the federal government.

The bill's passage last week in the lower house of the state Legislature came months after the Justice Department sued to block a Philadelphia nonprofit organization from opening what is known as a supervised injection facility. Such sites allow people to use illicit drugs, but they also allow medical professionals to closely monitor users and help them immediately in the case of overdoses.

Officials in San Francisco contend that opening such a facility is necessary to help alleviate the city's chronic drug and homelessness problems, which have led to open-air drug use and to needles and other drug paraphernalia being strewn on city streets. Mayor London Breed, a Democrat, has pushed for the facility to go forward.

"She's been clear that we have a crisis, an injection crisis, on our streets," said Jeff Cretan, a spokesman for Breed. "A safe injection site will obviously help not only reduce the needles that are on our sidewalks. ... Just as importantly, it will provide a space where people can go when they are ready to seek treatment."

San Francisco is one of several cities pushing for supervised injection sites to try to curb overdose deaths. In neighboring Oakland, Democratic Mayor Libby Schaaf introduced a resolution to the City Council earlier this month asking that the bill paving the way for San Francisco's site also include Oakland.

City officials in Ithaca, N.Y., as well as in Denver, Seattle and New York City have expressed interest in opening safe injection facilities, as has a legislative committee in Massachusetts.

The municipalities argue that the facilities would help alleviate the nation's opioid epidemic, which killed more than 47,000 people in 2017. Many of the deaths have been driven by fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid.

President Donald Trump's administration argued in the Philadelphia case that opening such a facility would violate federal law under a statute used to prosecute crack houses. Government lawyers say that allowing the use of illegal drugs would exacerbate the opioid epidemic.

But officials in California say they are not cowed.

The bill passed in a 44-26 vote and is heading to the California Senate, where proponents said they are cautiously optimistic that the legislation will be approved. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has indicated that he would sign a bill allowing such facilities to open. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

"California legislators tend not to be intimated by the Trump administration," said Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener. "I don't view that as resonating in the California Legislature."

A similar measure cleared the Legislature last year, but it was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.

San Francisco would be a pilot site for the state; officials would gather information and data about how the facility functions and whether it can be replicated elsewhere. Wiener said the facilities are necessary because they shift the focus on addiction away from punishment and toward helping drug abusers.

"It's a health issue, not a criminal issue, and we need to take approaches that are science-based, not fear-based, and we know from experience around the world that safe injection sites work," he said.

Supervised injection facilities operate in Australia, Canada and Europe. Officials from U.S. cities have visited a large supervised consumption facility in Vancouver, British Columbia, and a smaller one in Toronto.

A Philadelphia delegation led by former city mayor and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, was among them. Rendell has been a vocal supporter of the city's facility, called Safehouse. The group has claimed the facility would be consistent with existing law because it would provide access to medical treatment and overdose services.

A Section on 05/26/2019

Print Headline: California advances bill on site for illegal-drug use

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