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San Francisco wants to offer free drug recovery books at its public libraries

SAN FRANCISCO — The most stolen books from San Francisco public libraries’ shelves are not the hottest new novels or juicy memoirs, they are books about recovering from addiction. Now, city officials want to provide universal access to free drug recovery books, including Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step recovery book.

San Francisco City Supervisor Matt Dorsey on Tuesday introduced legislation to expand a pilot program to distribute addiction recovery books for free at the city’s 28 public libraries. A record 806 people died of a drug overdose in the city last year.

If approved, San Francisco would be the first city in the nation to do so as communities coast to coast confront an unprecedented fentanyl crisis.

The library launched a pilot program last April to distribute such materials at the main library and two branches. Since then, they have distributed more than 3,200 books about beating addiction.

City Librarian Michael Lambert said the library so far has spent about $40,000 on the pilot program.

“The city and county of San Francisco, like many urban environments, is seeing a lot of individuals who are struggling with addiction, substance abuse disorder, so we recognize there was an opportunity for the public library to do our part,” he said.

Lambert said the three libraries in the pilot program have about 75 substance use recovery books available at any given time. The two branches ask for more every few months but the main library has to replenish them every six weeks.

The main library is near the city’s Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods, which are rife with public drug use and dealing, and is frequented by unhoused people looking for a safe space.

The program comes after library workers noticed they had to keep replenishing books about recovering from substance abuse, especially Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step program, known as the “Big Book.”

“Drug and alcohol treatment can certainly save lives, but recovery programs are what truly change lives for the long term,” said Dorsey, a recovering meth addict.

Sue Betts, who is in her fifth year of sobriety from meth and alcohol, said the first step in her recovery journey started after she bought a workbook from LifeRing Secular Recovery, a Bay Area substance use recovery organization.

“When you read a book, it’s a private and very personal time when you can be honest with yourself,” said Betts, who is now LifeRing’s interim executive director. “Meetings are great but going into a meeting is definitely more intrusive.”

The workbook that helped Betts is already being offered as part of the library’s pilot program and other titles her organization publishes may be available there soon, she said.

Other books that will be offered include AA’s 12-step program, first released in 1939, as well as publications by Narcotics Anonymous and Crystal Meth Anonymous and many other substance use recovery programs. The texts will be offered in all available languages and those who want them won’t be required to have a library card, according to Dorsey’s proposed legislation.

Drug-addicted people in San Francisco have access to free life-saving Narcan, and clean syringes and other drug paraphernalia to prevent the transmission of diseases.

But having access to recovery literature could be an entry point to one of the dozens of in-person recovery programs offered in San Francisco, where there are more than 560 weekly AA meetings and dozens of weekly Narcotics Anonymous and other meetings, experts said.

“For some addicted people reading a recovery book can be the first time they feel understood, the first time they feel some hope,” said Keith Humphreys, professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and former White House Senior Drug Policy Advisor in the Obama Administration.

“It can be hard to get into treatment, maybe there is a waiting list, but this is something anybody can access right away,” he said.

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