SAN FRANCISCO — In early 2019, Tom Wolf posted a thank-you on Twitter to the cop who had arrested him the previous spring, when he was homeless and strung out in a doorway with 103 tiny bindles of heroin and cocaine in a plastic baggie at his feet.
“You saved my life,” wrote Wolf, who had finally gotten clean after that bust and 90 days in jail, ending six months of sleeping on scraps of cardboard on the sidewalk.
Today, he joins a growing chorus of people, including the mayor, calling for the city to crack down on an increasingly deadly drug trade. But there is little agreement on how that should be done. Those who demand more arrests and stiffer penalties for dealers face powerful opposition in a city with little appetite for locking people up for drugs, especially as the Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police movements push to drastically limit the power of law enforcement to deal with social problems.
Drug overdoses killed 621 people in the first 11 months of 2020, up from 441 in all of 2019 and 259 in 2018. San Francisco is on track to lose an average of nearly two people a day to drugs in 2020, compared with the 178 who had died by Dec. 20 of the coronavirus.
As in other parts of the country, most of the overdoses have been linked to fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid that laid waste to the eastern United States starting in 2013 but didn’t arrive in the Bay Area until about five years later. Just as the city’s drug scene was awash with the lethal new product — which is 50 times stronger than heroin and sells on the street for around $20 for a baggie weighing less than half a gram — the coronavirus pandemic hit, absorbing the attention and resources of health officials and isolating drug users, making them more likely to overdose.
The pandemic is contributing to rising overdose deaths nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reported last month that a record 81,000 Americans died of an overdose in the 12 months ending in May.
“This is moving very quickly in a horrific direction, and the solutions aren’t matching it,” said Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents the Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods, where nearly 40% of the deaths have occurred. Haney, who has hammered City Hall for what he sees as its indifference to a life-or-death crisis, is calling for a more coordinated response.
“It should be a harm reduction response, it should be a treatment response — and yes, there needs to be a law enforcement aspect of it too,” he said.
Tensions within the city’s leadership came to a head in September, when Mayor London Breed supported an effort by City Attorney Dennis Herrera to clean up the Tenderloin by legally blocking 28 known drug dealers from entering the neighborhood.
But District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a progressive elected in 2019 on a platform of police accountability and racial justice, sided with activists opposing the move. He called it a “recycled, punishment-focused” approach that would accomplish nothing.
People have died on the Tenderloin’s needle-strewn sidewalks and alone in hotel rooms where they were housed by the city to protect them from covid-19. Older Black men living alone in residential hotels are dying at particularly high rates; Blacks make up around 5% of the city’s population but account for a quarter of the 2020 overdoses. Last February, a man was found hunched over, ice-cold, in the front pew at St. Boniface Roman Catholic Church.
The only reason drug deaths aren’t in the thousands, say health officials, is the outreach that has become the mainstay of the city’s drug policy. From January to October, 2,975 deaths were prevented by naloxone, an overdose reversal drug that’s usually sprayed up the nose, according to the DOPE Project, a city-funded program that trains outreach workers, drug users, the users’ family members and others.
“If we didn’t have Narcan,” said program manager Kristen Marshall, referring to the common naloxone brand name, “there would be no room at our morgue.”
The city is also hoping that this year state lawmakers will approve safe consumption sites, where people can do drugs in a supervised setting. Other initiatives, like a 24-hour meth sobering center and an overhaul of the city’s behavioral health system, have been put on hold because of pandemic-strained resources.
Efforts like the DOPE Project, the country’s largest distributor of naloxone, reflect a seismic shift over the past few years in the way cities confront drug abuse. As more people have come to see addiction as a disease rather than a crime, there is little appetite for locking up low-level dealers, let alone drug users — policies left over from the “war on drugs” that began in 1971 under President Richard Nixon and disproportionately punished Black Americans.
In practice, San Francisco police don’t arrest people for taking drugs, certainly not in the Tenderloin. On a sunny afternoon in early December, a red-haired young woman in a beret crouched on a Hyde Street sidewalk with her eyes closed, clutching a piece of foil and a straw. A few blocks away, a man sat on the curb injecting a needle into a thigh covered with scabs and scars, while two uniformed police officers sat in a squad car across the street.
Last spring, after the pandemic prompted a citywide shutdown, police stopped arresting dealers to avoid contacts that might spread the coronavirus. Within weeks, the sidewalks of the Tenderloin were lined with transients in tents. The streets became such a narcotics free-for-all that many of the working-class and immigrant families living there felt afraid to leave their homes, according to a federal lawsuit filed by business owners and residents. It accuses City Hall of treating less wealthy ZIP codes as “containment zones” for the city’s ills.
The suit was settled a few weeks later after officials moved most of the tents to designated “safe sleeping sites.” But for many, the deterioration of the Tenderloin, juxtaposed with the gleaming headquarters of companies like Twitter and Uber just blocks away, symbolizes San Francisco’s starkest contradictions.
Mayor Breed, who lost her younger sister to a drug overdose in 2006, has called for a crackdown on drug dealing.
The Federal Initiative for the Tenderloin was one such effort, announced in 2019. It aims to “reclaim a neighborhood that is being smothered by lawlessness,” U.S. Attorney David Anderson said at a recent virtual news conference held to announce a major operation in which the feds arrested seven people and seized 10 pounds of fentanyl.
Law enforcement agencies have blamed the continued availability of cheap, potent drugs on lax prosecutions. Boudin, however, said his office files charges in 80% of felony drug cases, but most involve low-level dealers whom cartels can easily replace in a matter of hours.
He pointed to a 2019 federal sting that culminated in the arrest of 32 dealers — mostly Hondurans who were later deported — after a two-year undercover operation involving 15 agencies.
“You go walk through the Tenderloin today and tell me if it made a difference,” said Boudin.
His position reflects a growing “progressive prosecutor” movement that questions whether decades-old policies that focus on putting people behind bars are effective or just. In May, the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police energized a nationwide police reform campaign. Cities around the country, including San Francisco, have promised to redirect millions of dollars from law enforcement to social programs.
“If our city leadership says in one breath that they want to defund the police and are for racial and economic justice and in the next talk about arresting drug dealers, they’re hypocrites and they’re wrong,” said Marshall, the leader of the DOPE Project.
But Wolf, 50, believes a concerted crackdown on dealers would send a message to the drug networks that San Francisco is no longer an open-air illegal drug market.
Like hundreds of thousands of other Americans who’ve succumbed to opiate misuse, he began with a prescription for the painkiller oxycodone, in his case following foot surgery in 2015. When the pills ran out, he made his way from his tidy home in Daly City, just south of San Francisco, to the Tenderloin, where dealers in hoodies and backpacks loiter three or four deep on some blocks.
When he could no longer afford pills, Wolf switched to heroin, which he learned how to inject on YouTube. He soon lost his job as a caseworker for the city and his wife threw him out, so he became homeless, holding large quantities of drugs for Central American dealers, who sometimes showed him photos of the lavish houses they were having built for their families back home.
Looking back, he wishes it hadn’t taken six arrests and three months behind bars before someone finally pushed him toward treatment.
“In San Francisco, it seems like we’ve moved away from trying to urge people into treatment and instead are just trying to keep people alive,” he said. “And that’s not really working out that great.”
This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.
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