Politics influenced Gavin Newsom’s decision to veto supervised drug-use sites. But not in the way you think

Critics are furious at Gov. Gavin Newsom for vetoing a pilot program that would have allowed San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles to open supervised drug consumption sites as a way to curb California’s overdose crisis.

Some say Newsom spiked the controversial program to spare his reputation as he climbs the political ladder.

Political considerations definitely influenced Newsom’s decision. But they are more complex than Newsom vetoing the bill for fear that Republicans would dub him “Governor Heroin” when he runs for higher office.

Republicans and their conservative media megaphones have been mocking San Francisco’s open-air drug use for years. Greenlighting this bill wouldn’t have changed much other than perhaps giving Newsom a new nickname on Fox News.

Instead, Newsom is playing a different kind of political game — a long game that Californians have seen before. He is using the same playbook he relied on when he led the fight to decriminalize cannabis in 2016.

If he’s going to continue to burnish his national reputation as someone who leads the way on controversial issues like leagalizing marijuana and same-sex marriage, he will have to make sure moderate and right-of-center voters understand where he’s leading them — and why it matters.

The hint that he is headed in that direction is buried in Newsom’s veto message of Senate Bill 57, when he promised to direct the Secretary of Health and Human Services “to convene city and county officials to discuss minimum standards and best practices for safe and sustainable overdose prevention programs.

“I remain open to this discussion when those local officials come back to the Legislature with recommendations for a truly limited pilot program — with comprehensive plans for siting, operations, community partnerships, and fiscal sustainability that demonstrate how thes programs will be run safely and effective,” Newsom wrote.

If Newsom was vetoing Monday’s bill purely because he was scared of Republicans putting him on blast, he wouldn’t have offered a pathway forward for supvised drug consumption sites. Or said he was “open to discussion.” He would have dimissed it as a kooky and dangerous idea.

Newsom has behaved this way before. As with Monday’s veto, Newsom didn’t support a ballot measure to legalize cannabis in 2010, when he was running for lieutenant governor.

He was in tune then with most California voters, 53% of whom rejected it — including voters living in California’s Emerald Triangle weed-growing breadbasket of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties.

But three years later, Newsom joined forces with the ACLU and recruited a team of academics, drug policy experts, law enforcement authorities and officials from Colorado and Washington — the two states that had then legalized weed for recreational purposes — to form the Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy.

Eyes roll any time a politician recommends a “blue ribbon commission” to study a controversial issue. Often, rightfully so. They’re often a way to turn down the political heat on an issue by delaying a decision after some “future study” of indeterminate length.

But the cannabis panel, often joined by Newsom, behaved differently.

Its members spent nearly the next two years traveling the state, meeting with law enforcement officials, community groups and educators. They weren’t all pro-legalization. I joined Newsom when he took what was dubbed a “Cannabis Fact Finding Tour” to Humboldt County. There, the lieutenant governor was escorted to a 450-plant farm without learning its address or the grower’s full name — all in the name of seeing what illegal grows were like.

In 2016, the panel produced a 93-page report with 58 policy recommendations for how to legalize cannabis — just the kind of wonky deep dive that Newsom gobbles for breakfast. In November of that year, 57% of California voters backed legalization. Newsom had become one of the movement’s highest-ranking supporters nationally.

Some of those who served with Newsom on the commission see a clear parallel between his move then and now.

“The political calculus seems to be very parallel, very similar,” said Craig Reinarman, a professor emeritus of sociology at UC Santa Cruz who has written about drug policy for more than four decades.

But there are major differences. Unlike cannabis, which millions of Californians have consumed, there isn’t a built-in audience of political supporters for granting legal cover for supervised opioid use.

And Newsom’s decision to OK these safe sites would affect thousands of users in California, not millions, said Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University psychiatry professor who was a member of Newsom’s blue ribbon cannabis commission.

Humphreys didn’t know what a study of supervised drug-use sites would turn up that isn’t already out there. As state Sen. Scott Wiener, who authored the bill Newsom vetoed, told me a few weeks ago, “I don’t need a blue ribbon panel, because we have 30 years of evidence, including peer-reviewed studies, about these sites and their effectiveness.”

But the sheer passage of time may be a factor, said Humphreys, a former senior policy advisor on the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “Maybe politically people get more comfortable” with the supervised drug consumption model, he said. “But they could also get more pissed off, if that’s possible.”

Politically, the risks are higher for Newsom now than when he led the cannabis movement. Newsom has a bigger national image now as the leader of the world’s fifth-largest economy than when he occupied the near-invisible role of lieutenant governor during the pro-weed campaign. In recent months, he’s taken on a self-styled role as the bare-knuckled defender of Democratic values, attacking popular red state governors like Ron DeSantis of Florida.

Moreover, Newsom may take some blame in the eyes of the public for the continuing carnage of the drug epidemic, which might be lessened with the pilot program. In July, 43 people died from drug overdoses in San Francisco, bringing the citywide 2022 total to 346 deaths.

Reinarman, the drug policy expert — who advocated for similar drug-use sites nearly forty years ago — said he agreed with Wiener on their effectiveness. But he said he also understood that the public’s political will is not quite up to speed with the prevailing science. That is where the fight is now.

“It’s a very compelling case for (supervised drug consumption sites),” Reinarman said. “But to prove it in an election year, especially if you have any national aspirations, and especially with what happened to (former San Francisco District Attorney) Chesa Boudin when he got recalled, this would be a club with which his opponents would pummel him.”

Joe Garofoli is The San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political writer. Email: jgarofoli@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @joegarofoli

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