With harm reduction approach, San Francisco uses medical marijuana to help homeless populations through COVID-19

May 6, 2020

In San Francisco, harm reduction activists have taken center-stage, helping the city’s homeless population make it through the coronavirus epidemic with medical cannabis. According to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle this week, the city’s health department has confirmed that people with unstable housing situations that are also struggling with use disorders are receiving deliveries of methadone, alcohol, tobacco, and medical cannabis while being housed in local hotels during the COVID-19 quarantine. Harm reduction advocates everywhere consider it a win.

As per the Chronicle, San Francisco rented hotel rooms for a slew of individuals living on the street who were susceptible to the coronavirus. At the same time, many of the people receiving assistance from the health department are also dealing with substance use disorders, which could cause them, in some cases, deadly withdrawal symptoms. 

To help vulnerable people make it through this challenging time while encouraging them not to go outside and maintain social distancing protocols, the city has implemented a harm reduction approach.

“[The people with unstable housing situations are] doing San Francisco a great service by staying inside,” Jenna Lane, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Health, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We’re saying, ‘we’re doing what we can to support you staying inside and not have to go out and get these things.’”

In addition, the health department continues to provide medical services such as clinicians and social to anyone who needs them.

According to city officials, about 270 individuals are now living in the city-leased hotels waiting out the coronavirus in quarantine. Of those, only five are recipients of medical marijuana, and a handful have received other substances. 

The health department also noted on Twitter last week that none of these services are being paid for with taxpayer dollars.

“These harm reduction based practices, which are not unique to San Francisco, and are not paid for with taxpayer money, help guests successfully complete isolation and quarantine and have significant individual and public health benefits in the COVID-19 pandemic,” officials noted.

Many in the harm reduction community have called for such programs across the country as the coronavirus continues to take a toll on the most vulnerable populations. According to the Chronicle, Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties have taken a similar approach to help people with substance use disorder remain stable during this time, as has Kings County in Washington.

As per a memo put out by the National Health Care for the Homeless Council last month, harm reduction strategies, including the use of medical marijuana, are the best approach to helping the nation’s homeless population during these uncertain times. “Simply put, ‘harm reduction’ is a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing the negative consequences associated with drug use,” they wrote.

As it stands, most experts agree, and the medical literature concurs that harm reduction strategies are the best approach to helping the homeless population struggling with drugs and alcohol. 

“Our focus is using the best evidence to help people manage their addictions,” San Francisco Health Director Dr. Grant Colfax said in a statement. “In some cases, this will include helping them manage their alcohol and nicotine use so they can stay safe and in-place as much as possible to help their communities and help themselves.”

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