First-Ever Suboxone Distribution Program Announced In San Francisco

By Keri Blakinger 05/21/18

Experts praised the new plan which is slated to kick off in the fall. 

San Francisco Mayor Mark Farrell announcing the new program
San Francisco Mayor Mark Farrell announcing the new program Photo via YouTube

The city of San Francisco last week announced plans to launch a $6 million initiative to dole out buprenorphine (also known by its brand name Suboxone) to homeless people with drug addiction, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

A 10-person team will fan out across city streets with the goal of getting the potentially life-saving medication into the hands of at least 250 people fighting drug addiction. 

“The consequences of standing still on this issue are unacceptable,” Mayor Mark Farrell told the paper. “Drug abuse is rampant on our streets, and the recipe of waiting for addicts to come into a clinic voluntarily is not working. Plain and simple. So we’re going to take a different approach.”

The program, run by the Department of Public Health, stems from a 2016 pilot program when city workers went to tent camps and gave out buprenorphine to homeless people battling substance use disorder. Roughly 60% of the 200 who participated in the program are "still working on" staying off drugs afterward, according to city officials. 

“Buprenorphine saved my life, for sure,” said Chris Ruffino, who was addicted to heroin for three decades before starting the program. “Without buprenorphine I’d still be out here on the streets. I’d still be doing what I was doing.”

The city estimates that there are around 11,000 people with heroin addiction using needles to shoot up in San Francisco. There’s no way to figure out how many of those possible substances users are homeless, but city workers pick up more than 12,500 used syringes per month.

“Ultimately this is about helping these individuals, but it’s also about improving the conditions of our streets,” Farrell told the CBS affiliate KPIX. “They go hand in hand.”

Experts praised the new plan. “I think it’s a great idea,” Joshua Sharfstein, a professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told the Washington Post

Dr. Alex Stalcup, an East Bay-based addiction expert, concurred. “It ought to be part of the national program,” he said. “And people who go into tents, like San Francisco has done to distribute Suboxone, they are my heroes.”

The program is slated to begin in the fall, and the city is billing it as the first of its kind. 

“This is a great innovation because we are going out to people where they are, not waiting for them to come to us,” Barbara Garcia, the city’s public health director, told the Chronicle

“So we’re making sure, with this approach, that we really reach people. This is what the rest of the country needs to think about. They need to follow our lead on this.”

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.