Healthcare leader sues over Twitter wanted poster

“This type of discourse is so inappropriate and ineffective and harmful, and it’s become so commonplace, particularly on Twitter…”

San Francisco’s response to the drug overdose crisis has long been at the center of public debate. But toxic online discourse has gone too far, asserts one healthcare leader in a defamation lawsuit filed Monday in which he claims he was essentially accused of murder.

Gary McCoy, vice president of policy and public affairs at the healthcare nonprofit HealthRIGHT 360, filed suit against San Francisco-based writer and finance expert Erica Sandberg. The case centers on a wanted poster Sandberg shared on Twitter falsely stating that McCoy, who is an advocate for harm reduction and supervised drug consumption, was responsible for the “murder of 1,500 plus drug addicts at the failed Linkage Center.”

According to the lawsuit, the image was first posted online on April 9, 2022 by an account with the name Karl Brandt — the same name as Adolf Hitler’s physician. It included the wanted poster with McCoy’s face and name on it, alleging he was responsible for mass death at the Tenderloin Center, a multi-resource hub created during Mayor London Breed’s 90-day emergency declaration in the Tenderloin neighborhood.

“Mr. McCoy has feared for his life and the safety of his loved ones following these false allegations. False accusations of murder posted publicly, without context, endanger the victim’s life, family, and livelihood,” Alex Lemberg, the San Francisco attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of McCoy, wrote in a press release about the case. “Public retraction and apologies, which have not yet occurred, are only the first steps toward relief in this matter.”

Sandberg, who has more than 8,000 followers on Twitter, describes herself as “the nation’s top consumer finance expert and freelance journalist” on her personal website. She has been among the more vocal critics of The City’s response to the overdose crisis on Twitter. She has tweeted that instead of harm reduction and voluntary services, San Francisco should be working harder to arrest drug dealers and force addicts into treatment. She is not alone in her online criticisms and accusations.

“Rather than break up the open drug markets and provide treatment to addicts, San Francisco officials have adopted the opposite approach: let the sellers sell and the users use. Ignore. Make a feeble attempt to fix it, then let it slide out of control, again and again. Such policies and attitudes have resulted in immeasurable pain and an unprecedented number of overdoses,” she wrote in an email response to the Examiner about the lawsuit.

“For me, this includes relentlessly pushing our local officials to do the same. Prevention and recovery together. Like all cities, San Francisco has an ethical obligation to break up the open drug scenes that have made becoming and remaining an addict easy. At the same time, we need to provide people who are suffering with substance abuse and mental health issues with medical and psychiatric treatment. When we do, we give them a fighting chance to truly live.”

But differences of opinions are far cry from memes accusing someone of mass death, McCoy’s attorney stated.

“In addition to obtaining relief for the serious damage to Mr. McCoy’s reputation and psyche from this series of Twitter posts, this lawsuit is intended to firmly and publicly renounce this severe and outrageous form of cyber-bullying that is prevalent on social media,” the press release reads. “Both Mr. McCoy and Mx. Lemberg are proud members of the LGBTQ+ community and unequivocally stand against bullying in any form. Public discourse related to matters of public importance must not stoop to these levels, and people who choose to accuse others of murder in a public forum must face consequences.”

Beyond the Twittersphere

HealthRIGHT360 oversees overdose prevention and response services at the Tenderloin Center. Zero overdose deaths have occurred at the Tenderloin Center since it opened in January, according to San Francisco public data.

Yet early on, the center came under fire by critics for allowing individuals struggling with substance dependency to use drugs in a supervised and private setting away from the public eye. Critics have described the approach as enabling and traumatic to other individuals who are seeking a substance-free environment.

Overdose deaths in San Francisco remain a persistent public health crisis. Nearly 1,350 people died from drug overdoses in 2020 and 2021 combined, according to data from the Office of the Medical Examiner. At least 144 overdose deaths occurred between January and March 2022.

McCoy, who has been sober since 2011, formerly used heroin and methamphetamine and credits harm reduction for his own recovery process. He has long advocated for increased attention and services around substance use disorder in San Francisco. In August 2021, McCoy led a hunger strike at San Francisco City Hall that helped lead to The City’s emergency order around the overdose crisis and paved the way for safe consumption services.

San Francisco adopted a harm reduction policy for substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV treatment in 2000. Harm reduction is a public health philosophy that promotes reducing the physical and emotional hardships associated with drug and alcohol consumption and assisting individuals toward voluntary safe drug use, treatment and recovery.

The approach has deep roots in San Francisco, a place where communities had success and helped popularize safe needle exchanges during the HIV/AIDS crisis. It is an evidence-based approach that is supported by public health agencies at the local, state and national level, and is named in the Biden-Harris Administration’s plan for addressing substance use disorders.

Harm reduction for drug use can include safe needle exchanges, providing clean smoking supplies and using drugs in a supervised setting stocked with naloxone, a fast-acting drug that can reverse opioid overdoses. The philosophy extends much broader than substance use, too. Wearing masks and social distancing is a form of harm reduction for airborne viruses, for example.

But harm reduction and addressing substance use disorder have become politicized and at times have prompted violent discourse among social media users in San Francisco and beyond.

There are some who believe that abstinence and compulsory treatment would be more effective in changing behavior and entering recovery. But there is growing evidence to support safe consumption sites. New York City, for example, launched the country’s first supervised drug consumption site last December and is now scheduled to expand following early success. According to NBC New York, the overdose prevention sites in East Harlem and Washington Heights reversed more than 150 overdoses in its first three months, many of them among repeat visitors looking for help.

Meanwhile, a study released May 10 published in the medical journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence looking at compulsory drug treatment outcomes in Sweden found that “the risk of dying immediately after discharge from compulsory care is very high, especially for younger clients, and more efforts should be made to prevent these deaths.”

“He is just a person fighting for what he believes in,” said Lemberg, referring to McCoy’s work and activism. Lemberg added that McCoy is not a public or elected official. “This type of discourse is so inappropriate and ineffective and harmful, and it’s become so commonplace, particularly on Twitter and elsewhere as well.

sjohnson@sfexaminer.com

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