SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — San Francisco’s mayor is introducing a first-of-its-kind plan to bring treatment for drug addiction directly to the streets. The program aims to supply drug addicts with buprenorphine, used to help people reduce or quit their opiate use and that could stop cravings immediately.
The program is a follow-up to a 2016 pilot program in which city workers went into homeless encampments to hand out buprenorphine to addicts. The city says 60 percent of the people who received the drug stayed clean.
One of them was Chris Ruffino who was an IV drug user for 30 years. “Buprenorphine saved my life, for sure,” he said.
Ruffino was homeless, addicted to opioids, and almost died five times from overdoses only to be brought back to life by Narcan injections. But he says it’s buprenorphine that finally woke him up.
“Without the buprenorphine I’d still be out here on the streets,” said Ruffino. “I’d still be doing what I was doing.”
The city’s Department of Public Health says there are more than 22,000 IV drug users in San Francisco today. Ruffino says he hopes Thursday’s announcement will give those people the same opportunity he had.
Mayor Mark Farrell committed $3 million and 10 new employees to begin heading into homeless encampments and offering people buprenorphine.
“Because this traditional setting of waiting for people that are addicted to drugs to come to doctors’ offices, to come into clinics and get the treatment they need – it’s not working, plain and simple,” said Farrell.
San Francisco is the first city in the U.S. to offer the program. Farrell says the biggest barrier to getting buprenorphine is that people have to show up to a doctor’s office and get a prescription, but they’re not doing that.
“Ultimately this is about helping these individuals, but it’s also about improving the conditions of our streets,” said Farrell. “They go hand in hand.”
Ruffino is the ultimate success story. He’s clean, lives in the East Bay with his wife, and has a full-time job helping addicts find their way.
Things are normal, which Ruffino says is pretty incredible, since he had no idea what he was passing him by.
“Normal feels like a high because you haven’t been there in so long you haven’t realized what you’ve been missing,” he said, choking back tears. “All of a sudden, you can see and feel life.”
Farrell said the money for the program would come out of the city’s general fund, and believes a third of the money could be subsidized through Medi-Cal.
The program is expected to be rolled out over the next two months. While people accustomed to seeing addicts on San Francisco streets likely won’t see a difference right away, Farrell claims when they do see the difference it will be dramatic.