Enabling Fatal Drug Overdoses in San Francisco

For the past few years there have been virtually no legal consequences for selling or using drugs in San Francisco.   To address the thousands of addicts living and dying on the streets, city leaders have funded programs which visit the places where addicts congregate and hand out Narcan, a fentanyl antidote, and counsel addicts to shoot up with a partner to prevent an overdose.  As reported by Amy Graff of SF Gate, fatal drug overdoses in San Francisco increased by 70% from 2018 to 2019, and by over 50% in 2020. Over the first quarter of 2021 fatal overdoses have increased by 39% as the city heads for another record-breaking year .  Most of these deaths were caused by fentanyl, a synthetic opioid pouring across American’s southern border and is sold on the streets in every part of the country.

“It is easy to produce, it is cheap to produce, it is easy to move from one location to another, and it is more efficient in terms of the effect you get for the dollar you spend,” said Dr. Phillip Coffin of the San Francisco Department of Public Health.  Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and its effect is immediate, while morphine takes 20 minutes to kick in.

While nobody is denying that San Francisco has a serious drug problem, the official response does not include strengthening the law to increases consequences for dealers and addicts.  The Director of Harm Reduction Services at the Glide Foundation seems to speak for most of the city when she said “I think that if the right investments are made then I think that we can address this.  I worry quite frankly about overcriminalization of fentanyl leading to the same devastating impacts and overpolicing that we saw in the war on crack in the `80s and `90s…..We need person-centered care, a wide variety of options for folks.  Safe consumption spaces, more drug testing, improved safety nets, access to permanent housing and everything in between.  I think also we can’t ignore the impact of poverty, systemic racisism and serious social issues…”   With this Kumbaya approach, the best investment might be a larger morgue.

Earlier this month the SF Police Department seized 16 pounds of fentanyl, enough, according to the Chief, to kill every person in San Francisco four times over.

California laws reducing or eliminating the consequences of dealing, possessing and using illegal drugs coupled with the non-enforcement of even public health laws in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles have helped create this crisis.  As noted in Bill Otis’ post earlier today, the therapeutic model by itself, does not work.