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San Francisco’s passive approach on drug crisis costing lives, 700 deaths projected by end of 2020

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Just this September, San Francisco has already counted 516 deaths from a drug overdose and the number is projected to reach 700 by the end of the year and might continue to rise next year if the city remains passive to the drug crisis. In 2019, there were a total of 441 cases and 259 in the previous year showing an upward dangerous trend.

There had been active discussions in the City Hall about this topic for years but no conclusive solution has yet been reached and talks proved to be futile with lots of blame, bickering, and endless debate despite the growing dire situation in the city. 

Furthermore, the lax approach to these open-air drug markets specifically in Tenderloin and South Markets has not only resulted in deaths but has also disrupted the way of living of people residing within the area with reports of repeated harassments which forced families to stay home to avoid conflicts.

According to Heather Knight of the San Francisco Chronicle, the City had been eyeing Portugal’s drug policy which focused on a controversial solution of decriminalizing drugs. In her article last October 30, she had an interview with Dr. Joao Goulao, Director-General of The General Directorate for Intervention on Addictive Behaviours and Dependencies commissioned by the government of Portugal, who discussed the current policies of the country regarding drug use. 

In Portugal, illicit drug use is treated as a public health issue instead of a crime penalizing individuals with prison years. Dr. Goulao described it in analogy in compliance with wearing safety belts where people are encouraged to wear one but non-compliance will be fined or sent to traffic school and not jail time. 

“The possession of any type of drug in amounts that would last one person 10 days or fewer is decriminalized. If a police officer catches someone with a small amount of any drug — including cannabis, which is not legal in Portugal — the person must report to a special commission within three days,” according to the report by Knight. 

The commission is composed of a lawyer, a psychologist, and a social worker who works outside the criminal justice system. Drug users are recommended to a drug facility which he/she can decline while the charges and real consequences are faced by drug dealers. 

Before Portugal decriminalized drugs, the country recorded an average one person overdose per day. That is, the image from the 80s until the 90s showed 100,000 individuals were addicted to heroin. “By the end of the ’90s, it was almost impossible to find a Portuguese family with no problem with heroin,” Goulao said. He also added that the problem has become an epidemic and it was so “widespread across all economic classes that the public was crying out for a humane solution.”

In 2016, Portugal was able to champion through the epidemic and recorded only 27 cases of overdose that year in a population of over 10 million. 

San Francisco is now living in the era of 1980s Portugal and it’s much worse with over 22,500 injection drug users in 885,000 residents according to the Public Health Department. San Francisco officials have said that they like the model but no action has yet been taken to replicate it and address the issue of the growing number of deaths due to drugs. 

Instead, failed initiatives resounded around the topic. 

First, there was the much-discussed meth sobering center planned for Turk and Jones street in the Tenderloin but never opened due to the pandemic. There’s also the safe injection site that had raked in support in the City Hall for over 4 years but remained a blank initiative with threats of arrest from the Trump administration to those who will participate in it. 

There’s also the Conservatorship Law enacted last year which is supposedly aimed to direct people to treatment but has helped no one and the effective and efficient drug treatment system that is 23 years too late which was promised by then-Mayor Willie Brown. Access to treatment was still a long waiting line compared to Portugal which always has an available slot for people who are ready to go into rehabilitation. According to Goulao, Portugal spends over $85 million on drug treatment each year. 

The criminal justice system dealing with drug use has not changed either. In an interview with The Chronicle’s “Fifth & Mission” podcast, District Attorney Chesa Boudin said that he “prosecutes just over 80% of drug-dealing cases brought by police, a shade less than the 88% claimed by his predecessor, George Gascón.” That is drug dealing cases hardly ever go to trial and less even end up in prison time. 

Boudin pointed out familiar initiatives that would help make a real difference in handling the drug crisis: safe injection sites, treatment on demand, and police investigations targeting seizure of large narcotic businesses rather than small dealers and users. According to Boudin, “They’re almost exclusively crumbs — a few pills, a few rocks, very low-level dealers who are essentially fungible to the networks that are bringing drugs into our city.”

Sgt. Michael Andraychak, spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Department, countered that small dealers can lead to the arrest of large quantities of narcotics and the department has already formed a special task force for these high-level narcotics. They also added that from May 18 to October 11, they have successfully made 332 arrests for drug dealing in Tenderloin and have seized $183,934 in cash and 10,000 grams of drugs. In addition, they have also arrested the top 8 fentanyl dealers which had been the common cause of drug overdoses. 

There are a few more initiatives that are also being pushed. This year, Boudin talked to Superior Court Judges about creating a special court for people who have been trafficked and are arrested. The list includes sex workers and drug dealers. Another is City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s plan to seek civil injunctions which will prevent dealing in a 50 block radius from the drug hotspots in San Francisco. 

According to David Anderson, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, the central reason why Tenderloin remains one of the largest open-air drug markets on the West Coast is that there are light criminal consequences. “It is hard on the federal level alone to deliver enough volume of prosecutions. Certainly, more prosecution pressure would raise drug prices in the Tenderloin and would decrease the level of drug trafficking that you see and certainly would save lives,” Anderson said.

Another challenge in addressing the drug dealing issue is budget allocation. With the COVID-19 pandemic, mayors and supervisors would have to approve funding and this year had already been a brutal year in terms of budget. But some of these programs can be realized through the release of Proposition C money which can be used to fund a better system for drug and mental health problems. This month with the passage of Proposition A, a street crisis team will be launched to respond to 911 calls about people in distress. 

According to The Chronicle, San Francisco’s Street-Level Drug Dealing Task Force formed by the City’s Board of Supervisors is preparing to release their recommendations. Member Curtis Bradford, the community organizer with the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corp., said, “The conversation is really leaning toward this idea that it’s not either/or,” he said. “It’s not policing and enforcement or no enforcement and just programs.”

Bradford, who would soon be celebrating a decade of being sober after struggling with crystal meth addiction and homelessness had been a supporter of tough prosecution for violence-related drug dealing cases and an active advocate of safe injection sites and proactive drug policies. 

“I was shooting up three times a day just to function. Half my teeth had fallen out of my head. I was 30 pounds too thin and looked like a skeleton,” he recalled. “I’m grateful and amazed that I’ve been given this second opportunity at life.”

Thomas Lake

Resident tech nerd for the SF Times.

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