San Francisco Fog

Senate Passes Amendment Undermining SF Safe-Injection Sites, Parries Pelosi's Ryan White Redistribution

It was rough going for the City by the Bay this week. First, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint attached an amendment to the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education appropriations bill prohibiting the use of Health and Human Services funds for any cities that create legal safe-injection drug sites. It passed unanimously, without a single senator speaking up against this reactionary scare tactic.

Advocates believe that DeMint dreamed up the amendment after reading an Oct. 18 Associated Press article "San Francisco Considers Injection Drug Site", which wrote about a San Francisco city government forum where participants discussed the possibility of some day creating a safe-injection site as a way to reduce overdoses among the city's estimated 11,000 to 15,000 intravenous drug users. San Francisco is only in the early stages of talking about such a program.

In a press release by DeMint, subtitled, "DeMint amendment prohibit (sic) cities, like San Francisco, from creating taxpayer-subsidized safe havens for illegal drug users" DeMint said, "The Senate sent a clear message to cities that it's beyond ridiculous to ask Americans to pay for drug addicts to inject themselves with heroine and cocaine. The officials in San Francisco that gave credibility to this absurd idea should be embarrassed."

DeMint is the one who should be embarrassed. Safe-injection sites are used in 27 countries, including one site in Vancouver. The Vancouver program, despite early opposition, has proven successful in getting drug users off of the streets and preventing overdoses among an estimated 700 users a day.

"It's unfortunate a member of Congress can read the newspaper and go off half-cocked," Bill Piper, director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance told the Update. "We've been fighting the War on Drugs for more than 30 years, and what we've been doing for the last 30 years hasn't been working. We should be looking to try more creative solutions, not stifling them."

Advocates are working to make sure the amendment is eliminated. "We're hoping to get it taken out in conference, if not because people support the idea of safe injection site, but because it takes away the deliberative role of Congress that would have such an impact on the bill," said Hilary McQuie, western director of the Harm Reduction Coalition "Without any debate, it's just really bad procedure if nothing else."

Also unfortunate is the fact that no member of the Senate blinked an eye about the possibility of systematically denying funding to an entire city.

"This is sadly what we've come to expect from our spineless, supposedly progressive legislators," said Housing Works President and CEO Charles King. "It's a shame that no one in Senate fought this stupid, retrograde amendment."

San Franciscans want the feds to buzz off. "This is a local issue and a local debate and a local discussion," said Camilla Field of the San Francisco Drug Policy Alliance.

The House and Senate haven't conferenced on the HHS bill, so there's still time to contact your representatives, particularly House leadership such at New York Reps. Nita Lowey (here) and Charles Rangel (here). In addition a sign-on letter is being sent to House representatives, so if your organization would like to sign on, contact Grant Smith at gsmith@drugpolicy.org.

Pelosi Ryan White Fix Nixed ...

DeMint wasn't the only one who took a swipe at San Francisco. Another amendment to the HHS bill eliminating the House fix that would return Ryan White CARE Act distribution to its pre-reauthorization levels, was voted against 75 to 19. The House version, proposed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California), sought to nullify the funding cuts that affected San Francisco, New York and other areas that were hit hard early in the epidemic while decreasing funding for areas, particularly in the South, that have had growing numbers of new infections and where the states and cities are less likely to fund HIV/AIDS services.

Enzi said in a statement, "House Democrat Leaders quietly snuck in a provision that would rob disadvantaged individuals living in underserved areas of the country, of money they desperately need for HIV/AIDS treatment. We cannot let politics undo the very core mission of the Ryan White reauthorization passed last year. Revisions we made to the critically flawed funding formulas in RWCA must be preserved to ensure that federal dollars are used to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic of today, not yesterday."

Pelosi countered in a statement of her own that, "Although San Francisco developed the model of community-based care that served as the basis for the original Ryan White CARE Act, our City's needs are still severe." Pelosi's fix would have reduced cuts so jurisdictions could absorb them in a year. San Francisco’s funding, for example, would have been cut by $2.3 million under the House bill instead of $8.5 million cut announced by the Bush Administration earlier this year.

Unfortunately because the CARE Act is grossly underfunded no matter how you slice it, the pie's still too small, and regional squabbling continues in Congress. The only solution is for HIV/AIDS to be fully funded in all regions of the country.

Is it 2009 yet?