A joint anti-drug task force in San Francisco is to begin charging people who sell fentanyl that’s involved in a fatal overdose with murder. The new escalation in the city’s drug war, focused particularly on the downtown Tenderloin neighborhood, comes with the state’s collaboration.
Governor Gavin Newsom (D) claims the measure will help reduce overdose deaths, but evidence contradicts that. Instead, it’s likely to result in more incarceration, more fear on San Franscisco’s streets, and more hesitance to access lifesaving services.
On October 27, Gov. Newsom and city officials announced the creation of a new task force to investigate opioid-involved deaths and crack down on sales. The partnership includes the San Francisco Police Department and District Attorney’s Office, plus California’s Highway Patrol and National Guard. Prosecutors will be able to treat opioid-involved fatalities as murder investigations, “employing standard operating procedures to document deaths, gather relevant evidence, process intelligence to further map out the supply of fentanyl and large crime syndicates, and hold drug traffickers accountable.”
“Now, working together we will be able to investigate fatal fentanyl overdoses where evidence may be collected to establish a connection to the person who provided the drugs that killed someone so that they can possibly be charged with murder,” said San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins in the statement. “Drug dealers and traffickers have caused the death of far too many individuals in our community and this new tool will give us a better chance to hold them accountable for the true dangerousness of their conduct.”
“To be clear, this does not prevent overdose deaths and drug use … it simply penalizes someone for a tragic loss of life after-the-fact.”
Charging people who sell drugs with murder might be new in San Francisco, but it’s an established practice in many parts of the United States. “Drug-induced homicide” laws are already on the books in 25 states, some dating back at least 30 years. Years of research show these laws are associated with fewer people calling 911 in an emergency and more people dying of overdose. The laws frequently target friends or family members of the victim, who may have been using and sharing drugs with the person who died. and loved ones of overdose victims. They also disproportionately target people of color.
HealthRight360, a nonprofit providing mental health and substance use services across California, criticized the announcement in a statement: “Treating opioid deaths similarly to homicides only serves to stigmatize those battling substance use disorders, and can discourage individuals from seeking assistance … To be clear, this does not prevent overdose deaths and drug use, nor connect people with substance use disorder to treatment and other resources, it simply penalizes someone for a tragic loss of life after-the-fact.”
Preliminary city data indicate that 619 people are believed to have died of overdose in San Francisco from January through September. The city’s total for 2023 may surpass that of 2020, its deadliest year on record, when over 720 people lost their lives. Out of 54 deaths in September alone, 48 involved fentanyl, according to data tracked by the San Francisco Chronicle.
The new task force will take several months to assemble and will hit the streets in 2024. But the city’s drug-war escalation has been ongoing for years. In 2021, Mayor London Breed (D) promised to “take back our Tenderloin.” Since then, she has overseen a police crackdown on drug use and sales, with increased patrols and new powers for cops.
Newsom got the state involved in April, committing state highway cops and National Guard troops to target fentanyl sales in the city. Since the joint forces began operations, according to the governor’s office, they have seized 18.5 kilos of fentanyl, and made 364 felony and misdemeanor arrests.
“The impact on the street is profound. We see it in folks not wanting to come access services because they don’t want to be criminalized in some way.”
A local harm reduction provider said that the heightened police presence has had a chilling effect on drug users, frightening people away from accessing services that can protect their health and lives.
“Certainly the impact on the street is profound,” Anna Berg, director of programs at the Harm Reduction Therapy Center, told Filter. “You can feel the increase in uniformed officers, asking people to move along, writing citations on a daily basis for folks with any kind of substance or something perceived as paraphernalia.”
“We see it in folks not wanting to come access services because they don’t want to say what they’re using, because they don’t want to be criminalized in some way,” she continued. “You see people presenting less for care; [those] who might normally come to a center no longer feel safe to move through the streets to get to us. Folks saying, ‘I want to come check in with you, but I see the police officer there on the corner and I’m worried they’re watching us, so we can’t talk now.’”
Besides the threat of police harassment and violence against drug users, locking people up—a harm in itself—leaves them highly vulnerable to overdose upon release, with their opioid tolerance lowered.
Drug enforcement may also put people who aren’t arrested at higher risk of overdose. A recent study found that in Indianapolis, opioid seizures were “significantly associated” with overdose clusters in the immediate vicinity in the following weeks. Removing reliable supplies forces people to find new and potentially riskier sources.
All of these problems already existed in San Francisco, but will be exacerbated by the lastest escalation.
It’s not only in San Francisco. Under Gov. Newsom, California’s National Guard has also worked on counter-drug operations in Fresno and San Diego. In the 2022-2023 state budget, Newsom proposed spending $30 million to expand Cal Guard’s “existing drug interdiction efforts to prevent drug-trafficking transnational criminal organizations throughout the state,” especially fentanyl. The state reported that in 2022, Cal Guard and local police statewide seized 28,765 pounds of fentanyl, a 594 percent increase compared to 2021.
The militarized enforcement efforts are part of a larger, $1 billion “master plan” to address the overdose crisis, which includes expanded treatment and harm reduction measures. In March, Newsom proposed increased spending in the 2023-2024 budget to distribute more naloxone, support more education, testing and recovery services, and make fentanyl test strips more widely available.
But despite such steps in the direction of harm reduction, Newsom was responsible in 2022 for vetoing a bill that would have established pilot safe consumption sites (SCS, also known as overdose prevention centers) in three California cities, including San Francisco. He did this despite previously promising to support SCS.
Meanwhile, in December 2022, the city shut down the Tenderloin Linkage Center, a temporary and unofficial SCS, operated by HealthRight 360, that had reversed at least 300 overdoses that year.
“It doesn’t feel like [SCS are on the table],” Berg said. “Folks who use drugs operate their own unofficial overdose prevention sites out of necessity. What those don’t have is the access and linkage and relationship to additional services. They’re underground. This invisibility, of not being able to share what’s going on, or when you need help, is one of the main reasons we have folks overdose; they’re alone and can’t get care or help.”
Photograph by Carnaval.com Studios via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0