S.F.’s leaders struggle to cope with the ravages of fentanyl

‘We are overwhelmed, especially in the Tenderloin, but in other neighborhoods as well’

Fentanyl flooded San Francisco streets this year, leaving scores of people dead by overdose in its wake and a city struggling to come to grips with a drug epidemic.

Close to 600 people had died as a result of accidental overdoses in San Francisco as of Nov. 30, according to data from the San Francisco Police Department. Of those, 73% were caused by fentanyl.

All told, that “outpaces the lethality of COVID-19 by a rate of nearly two-to-one,” the same report says.

The potent drug’s ravaging of San Francisco residents took place despite the seizure of nearly 25 kilograms of fentanyl from the Tenderloin alone through Dec. 19. This is a nearly four-fold increase from the year prior when officers seized 5.5 kilograms of the synthetic opioid.

City officials have long tried to grapple with how to address the dual crises of public health and public safety brought on by open-air drug dealing and drug use, but the urgency of the debate has escalated as the human toll has skyrocketed.

Although these issues are not the only problems facing the Tenderloin, “they are major contributors to the trauma, insecurity and frustration experienced by many of those who spend time in the communities,” according to a June 30 report from the Street-Level Drug Dealing Task Force.

Convened out of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, the task force concluded that while the Tenderloin has been “a hotbed for illegal drug activity for decades, the situation has intensified in recent years, coinciding with increased use of illegally produced synthetic opioids like fentanyl.”

Chief among those tasked with addressing this changing reality is the Office of District Attorney Chesa Boudin. The City’s progressive lead prosecutor has come under fire from residents fed up with the status quo. He now faces a recall vote in June after petitioners gathered more than 83,000 signatures to get the initiative on the ballot.

One of the chief attacks from his critics is the belief that he’s opting for lenient sentences or against prosecution altogether, which, they say, leads to the same group of people committing crimes over and over.

Between January and September, SFPD made 426 arrests of 337 people for narcotic sales and possession for sale in the Tenderloin Police District. Of those, 65 adults were arrested more than once for the same crime in the same neighborhood.

According to SFPD records, 16 of those arrested were taken into custody more than twice, and four adults were arrested more than four times for the same crime in the same area.

Nearly 88% of the Tenderloin’s most prolific drug dealers who were arrested three or more times during this period were selling fentanyl.

Boudin was sworn in on Jan. 8, 2020. Prior to that date, the average time in custody for drug dealing repeat offenders was 17.9 days. By comparison, the same person spends an average of 5.4 days in custody if arrested today.

One of the recommendations issued by the Street-Level Drug Dealing Task Force calls for more enforcement of repeat offenders arrested for drug dealing but without substance use disorders. They should be subject to “consistent, meaningful and transparent consequences” as well as “offered services that are designed to reduce recidivism,” its report says.

Mayor London Breed’s controversial, albeit vague proposal to increase the presence of law enforcement in the Tenderloin could speak to this idea. The Board of Supervisors approved her request to declare a state of emergency in the Tenderloin last week. Doing so gives Breed increased authority to move resources to address the crisis, allows The City more latitude to coordinate actions between agencies and frees officials from the obligation to receive supervisorial approval prior to many actions.

How exactly law enforcement changes its tactics in the Tenderloin as a result of this state of emergency remains unclear. Despite Breed’s fiery speeches calling for a public safety blitz, other city officials appeared to walk back her rhetoric during a lengthy public hearing last week before the Board of Supervisors, and her deputy chief of staff committed “unequivocally” there would be no increase of the SFPD budget without prior approval.

Uncertainty aside, all but two supervisors voted to approve the state of emergency.

“We are overwhelmed, especially in the Tenderloin, but in other neighborhoods as well,” said Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents District 6 which encompasses the Tenderloin, SOMA and Civic Center. “This is a status quo that we absolutely need to challenge with everything we have. If this is not a public health emergency then that term lacks any meaning at all.”

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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