Governor Newsom Has Blood on His Hands

Disgust. Rage. Heartbreak. Defeated. These are some of the words being bandied about in the harm reduction community when folks describe how they felt when learning that Governor Newsom vetoed SB 57. SB 57 would have allowed overdose prevention programs to be established in San Francisco, LA, and Oakland. 

I wonder how many more people have to die before Governor Newsom will do something. Because apparently 2 or 3 people overdosing and dying everyday in San Francisco isn’t enough. Apparently losing around 5,500 Californians to drug overdose each year (and climbing) isn’t enough. 

I wonder how many families will be destroyed, how many children will grow up without parents, how many spouses will become widows. How many more people I have to lose. 

When I first started doing harm reduction outreach in the Tenderloin, distributing safer use and sex supplies, I recall thinking, “this looks like a war zone.” Of course, I now realize it is, more or less, a war zone. It is the aftermath of the war on drugs. The streets of large parts of San Francisco look like a bomb dropped, like poverty was a drone strike from some invisible adversary. The many folks with gaping wounds, crying out into the abyss for who-knows-what, something, anything to change, to make their pain go away, searching desperately for something to transform—to save—their lives.  

Governor Newsom vetoed a bill that drug users and harm reduction activists and advocates have been working tirelessly for years to get signed into law. His decision is, for lack of a better word, disgusting. 

It reeks of politics, and his defense of the veto lacks legitimate critiques of overdose prevention programs. This bill would provide folks a safe place to use their substances with healthcare professionals and peer advocates at the ready to reverse overdoses. There are overwhelming data both globally and now even nationally that show, without contest, the programs work. There has never been a single documented case of overdose death at even one of the hundreds of sites around the world. 

Of course, every person using drugs would not necessarily go to these sites to use, but some would. And every life saved matters. These sites are also shown to reduce needle and other drug-related litter around cities, they are shown to reduce HIV and STI transmission rates by having unused needles on site for folks who need them, and they are also shown to be an access point to link folks to substance use treatment who desire it. 

Governor Newsom claims that allowing overdose prevention programs to operate would somehow open a Pandora’s Box of unexpected and dangerous consequences; he fails to recognize that we are already living in a world of pain and chaos. 

In San Francisco and Oakland, I am used to seeing folks openly using substances in public, in transit stations, on the sidewalk. I am used to walking by dozens, sometimes hundreds, of folks lying on the pavement in crumpled, unnatural positions. I often don’t know whether they’re alive—especially if they are beneath a blanket or sleeping bag or tarp. I frequently pause for a few seconds to make sure they’re still breathing. And if their breathing is shallow enough, or the position they’re in appears uncomfortable enough, I will sometimes wake them up just to make sure they’re okay. I carry Narcan, the life-saving, opioid overdose reversal drug, on a carabiner hooked to my waist everywhere I walk. I have had to reverse overdoses on my way to work, to social events, to the grocery store. I often have random strangers ask me if I could teach them how to use it. 

This shouldn’t be our reality.

It’s time to trust the data, act, and save lives. Open overdose prevention programs now. 

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About the author

Nikos Pecoraro

Nikos Pecoraro (they/them) is a member of HIV Advocacy Network at San Francisco AIDS Foundation. They fight for the rights of folks experiencing houselessness and substance use disorders, as well as advocate and organize for labor and animal rights movements. They enjoy singing, jogging, and hiking in their free time, and are currently pursing their Master of Public Health.