California Gov. Newsom vetoes safe injection site bill

The California state legislature wrapped up its 2022 session on Wednesday, capping months of debate over bills to address housing, labor, reproductive rights, climate, energy, and more. Democrats control both chambers, with a 30-9 majority in the Senate and a 60-19 majority in the House. Furthermore, with a Democrat in the governor’s seat, the state provides an ideal opportunity to measure Democratic priorities and the success or failure in turning them into actionable policy.

CARE Court

One of the most controversial bills, creating a new court program for mentally ill people and the unhoused, passed the Senate 40-0 on its last day in session.

The Community Assistance, Recovery, and Empowerment Court Program, called CARE Court, is a new way for family, community members, probation officers, and others to refer people with severe mental illness into treatment. To initiate a CARE plan, qualified individuals would petition a civil judge to determine if the person meets the criteria, such as a diagnosis of schizophrenia and homelessness or risk of homelessness. If so, the court would initiate a series of hearings and evaluations to determine an individualized treatment plan. For up to two years, a CARE plan would provide participants with medication, treatment, and social services for stabilization.

Supporters argue that the bill will provide desperately needed treatment to people with severe, untreated psychosis who are otherwise cycling through jails, hospitals, and homelessness.

Opponents, however, are concerned that CARE Court will force unwilling individuals into treatment in violation of their civil rights:

The ACLU California Action, Human Rights Watch, Coalition on Homelessness, Mental Health Association of San Francisco, Disability Rights California and other advocacy groups have expressed opposition to the plan. Chief among criticisms is that the plan would force individuals into treatment if they do not cooperate, and that they could then be placed under conservatorship.

Conservatorship is a legal proceeding in which a judge appoints a family member or public guardian called a “conservator” to care for another adult, including overseeing their housing, health and financial decision-making.

The ACLU released the following statement in response to CARE Court:

“CARE Court is a fast track to re-institutionalize Californians living with mental health disabilities,” says Kim Pederson, senior attorney at Disability Rights California. “The state should invest in evidence-based practices for voluntary engagement in community-based, trauma-informed, culturally-responsive mental health services. Instead, CARE Court creates a punitive system under which a person must comply with court orders or risk being conserved and institutionalized. True recovery and empowerment can only come from providing people with meaningful opportunities to make their own choices about the services that will work best for them.”

Additionally, by involving the legal system the proposal will perpetuate institutional racism and exacerbate existing disparities in health care delivery since Black, Indigenous and other people of color are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with psychotic disorders than white people, and because there is clear evidence that adequately resourced, intensive, voluntary outpatient treatment is more effective than court-ordered treatment.

  • Further reading: “Why We Oppose CARE Court—and You Should Too!” LA Progressive.

Overdose prevention program

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) vetoed a bill that would have created a pilot program for safe injection sites in three Californian cities.

Safe injection sites, also called supervised injection sites, are facilities overseen by health care personnel who provide sterile injection supplies, counseling on safe injection techniques, emergency care in the event of an overdose, primary medical care, and referrals to appropriate social and addiction services. Individuals bring their own drugs to the site, where they can safely and legally inject the drugs with medical personnel on hand should an overdose occur. Some sites also offer free drug tests, including tests to detect fentanyl, to determine the strength and purity of the drug in question.

There are over 100 safe injection sites worldwide (as of 2018). The U.S. opened its first safe injection site in New York City last year.

Due to extensive evidence that safe injection sites save lives and money, California Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) introduced legislation to create facilities in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland. It passed the Senate 21-11 and the House 42-29.

Gov. Newsom vetoed the bill last week, a move that critics say is aimed at boosting his national image ahead of a potential 2024 presidential run.

“He’s been out there speaking to constituents and voters in Florida and Texas about all the ways in which California is ahead of the curve,” said Jeannette Zanipatin, California director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “So, for us, this definitely signals that he was concerned about how this might play out in the media as well as the political arena.”

In a statement explaining his veto, Newsom cited a common Republican argument against harm reduction strategies — that safe injection sites will only increase drug use and crime in the area. “Worsening drug consumption challenges in these areas is not a risk we can take,” he wrote.

Union organizing

Lawmakers passed a bill to provide fast food workers stronger bargaining rights, with a council to set wages and working conditions for the more than half-a-million employees across the state.

The council would set aside seats for business and worker representatives. “We’re looking to give workers a voice on the job, and for workers in the fast-food industry, which will continue to try to organize, it’s tough,” said former legislator Lorena Gonzalez, the original author of the bill, who is no longer in the Assembly. “They’ve never had a voice on the job, and traditional organizing hasn’t worked.”

At the same time, the state assembly voted down a measure to allow state lawmakers’ staff to unionize. The bill failed after Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove) argued the bill did not go through the proper vetting process, initially withholding his committee vote.

“The reason I held this is not to make these folks take a hard vote,” Cooper said when he spoke in opposition of the legislation. “So you can get on Twitter. I don’t care. You can get on Facebook. I don’t care. It’s doing what’s right.”

Bail reform

A bill to reform the state’s bail system failed to pass the Assembly with the required 41-votes during the last day in session. SB 262 is a scaled-back version of the “zero bail” policy that the state adopted during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. It would require that bail premiums be returned to suspects if charges are dismissed or no charges are filed within 60 days after the suspects’ arrest and prohibit charging suspects for pre-trial ankle monitors.

SB 262 set out to bring equity to a bail process that advocates say unfairly punishes the poorest among us. For example, a study by the Center for Responsible Learning found that bail bond companies collect “roughly $1.4 to $2.4 billion each year in premium payments, including interest and fees,” with “minimal oversight and regulations in many states.” These premiums are not returned to clients, regardless of innocence or guilt.

Transgender sanctuary

Lawmakers passed a bill to provide legal refuge to parents from other states who risk being criminally prosecuted if they support their children’s access to gender-affirming procedures and other health care. The measure, SB 107, introduced by Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), passed the Senate 30-9 and the Assembly 60-19.

“California must stand with LGBTQ kids and their families, especially when they’re under attack across the country,” said Senator Wiener. “SB 107 ensures that California is a refuge state for trans kids and their parents, so they can be safe here. Parents should never be separated from their kids or criminalized for simply allowing them to be who they are. We need to hold firm in our support for the LGBTQ community and stand with LGBTQ youth.”