San Francisco may try to follow the "New York Model" of turning a blind eye and providing some funding for "wellness" centers that allow consumption of illegal drugs under new legislation being put forward by Supervisor Hillary Ronen.
It's somewhat of a compromise on top of a compromise, and as NBC Bay Area reported late last week, the Mayor's Office and the Board of Supervisor are looking "to thread a legislative needle" on the topic of safe drug consumption sites.
Late last year, we learned that multiple nonprofits in the Mission District and elsewhere were poised to open their Community Wellness Centers, as they're being called, with the blessing of city legislation from 2020 that provided permits for such sites. Mayor Breed put the breaks on those openings in December, acknowledging Governor Gavin Newsom's August veto of state legislation that would have condoned such centers.
And, to be clear, the city's legislation from 2020 stated that city-issued permits "shall not be operative and shall not authorize the operation of an Overdose Prevention Program unless and until state law authorizes the City to approve" such centers.
But supervisors, emboldened by the estimated 300 overdoses that were prevented by the Tenderloin Center — which, itself, was operating in a legal gray area — called the mayor and the Department of Public Health to task over their previous pledge to establish and fund 12 "Wellness Hubs" around the city to replace the Tenderloin Center. The Board of Supervisors' progressive wing insisted in mid-December, despite what the Mayor's Office was saying, that these Wellness Hubs would move forward.
Mayor Breed was careful in her statements to the Chronicle last week about whatever compromise plan that's been reached, saying, "Due to legal restrictions, there remain significant challenges. Despite that, we are continuing to work with our non-profit partners to find creative ways to open these sites."
Those "creative ways" appear to be inspired by what similar privately funded safe-consumption sites have done in New York — which is to say, they provide multiple services as wellness centers, including counseling and referralls to drug treatment, and they let the "overdose prevention" part of the services to be its own, siloed thing.
As Sup. Ronen clarified in a Twitter thread, "Wellness Centers are robust healing centers that provide many services to drug users only one of which is a safe consumption area."
Ronen continued, " The City of New York in the “New York Model” currently funds the majority of costs of their version of wellness centers — approximately $15 Million of the annual $17 Million budget for 2 centers. The only part of the Budget NYC doesn’t fund is the Safe Consumption part of the Center."
So, the idea would be to provide city funding to establish and run the wellness parts of the wellness centers, on paper, while not funding the drug-use part with public funds, per se.
"It is my aim that SF will follow suit and fund all parts of the Wellness Centers with City funds and will use opioid settlement funds (non public) dollars to fund the Safe Consumption part of the centers," Ronen said. "I very much hope that Mayor Breed and City Attorney Chiu agree with me on these points."
Breed's statement appears to put any potential legal liability in the hands of the nonprofits, if it comes to that. And Gary McCoy, vice president of policy and public affairs for one nonprofit, HR360, tells the Chronicle, "As a nonprofit provider, it’s not ideal for any potential liability to fall on a provider."
Ronen also said she wasn't quite comfortable with foisting off all this liability, and she told the Chronicle that she and the mayor had "differences in the risks that we think are reasonable to take."
The next step will be new legislation, possibly to be introduced Tuesday, that will overturn the legislation the board already passed two-plus years ago. Now, this will somehow be worded to permit the operation of Wellness Hubs, or Centers, or whatever they will be called, regardless of state or federal legal issues — or maybe they will somehow sidestep the overdose-prevention stuff.
What's clear, though, is that neither Gavin Newsom nor London Breed want to have "you condoned centers that let people inject fentanyl" to haunt their political futures.
Photo: Gordon Mak