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Will California’s AB 186 Create Safe Spaces to Use Heroin and Opioids?

Last Updated on July 19, 2017 by

Like other states in the U.S., California has seen a spike in overdoses as a result of heroin and prescription painkillers. While the news cycle appears to have moved away from the country’s opioid epidemic, the problem persists.

In 2015, an estimated 33,000 people fatally overdosed on heroin or opioid medication, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

AB 186 - California Safe Space for Heroin and Opioids

In response, California Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman is taking action with AB 186, a bill that allows for medically supervised injection sites in specific counties across the state until 2022.

“It’s treating addiction as a public health issue and getting people help rather than criminalizing it,” Eggman said in an interview with The Sacramento Bee.

What is AB 186?

A former social worker, Eggman’s bill has so far cleared the Assembly health committee and is moving to the Assembly public safety committee. If passed, AB 186 would authorize the following:

  • Adults could bring illegally purchased drugs to “safe injection sites” where healthcare professionals are on staff to provide clean needles and provide emergency services if necessary
  • The four year pilot program would operate in eight counties, those with the heaviest opioid consumption, including Los Angeles and San Francisco
  • Counselors are on staff at the facilities and are able to help users find treatment services when they’re ready

Do Safe Injection Sites Work?

Harm reduction measures like “safe injection sites” are not new. The Canadian government, which faces a similar crisis of opioid and heroin addiction, instituted a number of policies aimed at reducing overdose fatalities.

Insite, in Vancouver, British Columbia, is a “safe injection site” operating for the last 13 years. Officials at Insite estimate that they’ve intervened on some 5,000 overdoses at their facility. This has averted many overdoses that otherwise might have occurred on the street, a playground or any number of other unsafe locations.

Harm reduction measures are often met with resistance and Sacramento is not short on opposing voices. Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, asserts that AB 186 is a program of facilitation rather than intervention. Cory Salzillo from the California State Sheriff’s Association is also against the measure.

“By creating government sanctioned drug dens,” he tells KCRA Channel 3 in Sacramento, “we’re allowing people to lawfully use controlled substances even though that activity violates federal law.”

Advocates of harm reduction techniques and “safe injection sites” point to the fact that decades of law enforcement and criminalizing drug use has done nothing to decrease rates of addiction.

They argue that harm reduction measures increase public safety by preventing HIV outbreaks as a result of needle sharing or overdoses that happen in openly public spaces.

Much of the heroin purchased on the street is cut with other, more dangerous substances, such as fentanyl or carfentanil. Healthcare workers armed with naloxone can reverse overdoses, which is ultimately cheaper than locking users up.

“These are folks who are going in and out of jail systems, who are going in and out and our emergency rooms. This is not for everybody,” says Eggman. “This is just one tool in the toolbox of treating opioid addiction.”


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