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California Bill Requires Drug Testing of Sewage Water to Track Illicit Drug Use

Assemblymember Haney’s AB 3073 will require large California water treatment facilities to test wastewater for illicit drugs and use data for rapid response

For immediate release:
  • Nate Allbee
  • (415) 756-0561

SACRAMENTO – Today, Assemblymember Matt Haney (D-San Francisco) announced Assembly Bill 3073 the Wastewater Drug Testing Act. The first in the nation bill empowers the State Water Board, in collaboration with the State Department of Public Health, to require local water agencies to collect and test wastewater samples for drugs like fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamine and xylazine (aka Tranq).

Successfully used in Europe for over a decade, wastewater based drug testing allows local governments to pinpoint – down to a neighborhood level – dangerous spikes in the use of illicit drugs. Wastewater testing allows local public health departments and law enforcement to accurately allocate resources to tackle the rise of illegal drugs, allowing communities to feel safer and to save lives.

“Wastewater drug testing empowers us to be proactive and respond effectively and immediately when we see spikes in certain areas or of particular drugs. The state cannot simply wait for people to die before we act,” said Assemblymember Matt Haney, Chair of the State’s Fentanyl Select Committee on Overdose Prevention. “Wastewater drug testing can give us critical information to respond quicker to stop these drugs and intervene smarter and deploy resources with more precision,” said Haney.

The surge in illicit drug use has intensified California’s struggle with it’s overdose epidemic. Driven by the proliferation of fentanyl and Tranq, overdose-related deaths in San Francisco peaked to more than 750 people in 2023, taking nearly three times as many lives as COVID-19 at its peak in 2021. Nationally, an estimated 109,680 drug overdose deaths were recorded in 2022 alone according to the CDC – 300 Americans each day.

Wastewater-based drug testing is a proven technique where wastewater samples are taken from the sewer system and tested for specific targets. In the COVID-19 pandemic, this technology was used in the US National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS) to effectively produce community-level data that helped limit the spread of COVID-19.

AB 3073 will require the State Water Board in collaboration with the State Department of Public Health to have local water agencies collect wastewater samples and test them for illicit drugs. At a minimum, this testing will occur twice weekly on one weekday and weekend date in order for the State Department of Public Health to have sufficient data to analyze drug trends in communities. This data will also be available on the public health website so that constituents are aware of the levels of drug use in their communities and any new drugs to be cautious of.

Wastewater drug testing has been a proven tool in Europe for the past 20 years used to pin point drug use hot spots, and identify new drugs entering the population before they take root in communities. The National Institute on Drug Abuse is using wastewater drug testing nationally as part of their pilot program in over 70 cities nationwide.

“Despite the fact that the United States is experiencing an unprecedented deadly epidemic from drug overdoses, we are way behind the curve in adopting wastewater based drug testing in responding to combat the opioid epidemic,” said Haney. “Other countries have proven that testing wastewater for illicit drugs allows public health departments to identify trends in drug use in neighborhoods and proactively target public health interventions in communities before overdose deaths occur.”

AB 3073 will be heard in the Assembly Health committee in the upcoming weeks. If the bill passes it will be the first time that wastewater drug testing will be mandated statewide to combat the opioid epidemic.