Newsom, Out Front on Marriage and Marijuana, Faces ‘Different Animal’ On Drug Sites

Gavin Newsom is facing one of the toughest political decisions of his career: whether to grant state permission for San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles to open experimental safe injection sites as a way to curb California’s overdose crisis.

Most elected leaders couldn’t veto something like this fast enough. Condoning illegal drug use — even if it is supervised by professionals — sounds politically insane.

But since his first days in elective office, Newsom has been at his best when he’s looking around the corner and leading on a controversial issue, long before it’s well understood, much less politically popular. Think about his leadership on same-sex marriage, the legalization of cannabis, rolling back the death penalty, toughest-in-the-nation gun safety laws and making California an abortion rights sanctuary.

Newsom was out front early and loudly on those issues — even when the rest of America thought he was nuts and the moves jeopardized his career.

“SF Mayor Gavin Newsom Risks Career on Gay Marriage” blared a Newsweek headline in January 2009, two months after California voters backed Proposition 8, which banned the same-sex marriages that Newsom had approved weeks after beginning his stint as San Francisco’s mayor in 2004. After the loss, Newsweek wrote that “Newsom has become a joke to Democratic insiders, a man whose bright national future ended before it began.”

So much for predictions. Score one for being ahead of the curve.

But this decision is different, which may be why insiders say Newsom is hesitating about whether to approve the pilot program to allow people to inject or smoke drugs in the presence of harm-reduction specialists in controlled settings. As my colleague Heather Knight has written about extensively, it is a way to address the overdose epidemic that is out of control. Since 2020, 1,649 people have died of overdoses in San Francisco, nearly twice as many as those who have died due to COVID-19.

This is not an untried idea. Similar sites have been operating in Canada and Europe. New York has been running two since last year. The city’s new mayor — former police officer Eric Adams, hardly a progressive — likes them so much that he’s considering keeping them open all night.

It seems like the exact type of cutting-edge idea that Newsom would leap to support, said Kim Nalder, a professor of political science at Sacramento State University.

“With so many issues, he’s shown that he’s willing to blaze a trail, so it’s already his brand,” Nalder said. “Californians already expect him to do things that are out of the mainstream that might be ahead of the rest of the country. So I don’t think it hurts him to do more bold actions because that’s part of his logo already.”

There’s one problem. In raw political terms, it’s a loser.

Unlike Newsom’s move to legalize same-sex marriage or put his weight behind cannabis and abortion rights, there’s no constituency for needle drug users. After Newsom permitted San Francisco to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, there was a long, joyous line of loving couples snaking around City Hall, eternally grateful to Newsom for enabling them to do something they thought would never happen in their lifetime — get married.

Politically, he was prescient. Then, about 42% of Americans supported gay marriage, according to Gallup. Now, 71% of the country — including a majority of Republicans — support same-sex nuptials.

Newsom was also ahead of the curve when he led the drive to legalize cannabis in California in 2016 while he was lieutenant governor, becoming one of the highest-ranking officials in the country to back legalization. Longtime former GOP operative Tim Miller praised Newsom for his weed work and said he could take it even further.

“Running a national ‘Legalize It’ (cannabis) campaign would be really popular,” said Miller, who was a bare-knuckled political operative when he worked on presidential campaigns for John McCain and Jon Huntsman.

“But needle drugs?” Miller said and shook his head. “This is just a different, different animal.”

Click here to read the full article at the SF Chronicle

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