2021 gets off to a deadly start as overdoses continue to climb

The number of fatal drug overdoses last month in San Francisco increased by more than 60 percent compared to the month of January last year — a troubling trend since 2020 closed with an historic high of 699 overdose deaths.

With 61 drug overdose deaths last month, 2021 has gotten off to a deadlier start compared to January 2020 when there were 38 drug overdose deaths, according to a report from the Medical Examiner’s Office released Wednesday.

The potent synthetic opioid fentanyl was detected in about half of the drug overdose deaths last month. The second most prevalent drug identified in the deaths was methamphetamine followed by cocaine. Heroin and medicinal opioids were detected in less than 10 of the deaths.

“This is a devastating, deadly start to the year,” Supervisor Matt Haney told the San Francisco Examiner. “Last year was by far the worst year ever for deaths by overdose. It looks like we are already on track to have an even worse year this year.”

He said, “We have to take bolder, bigger coordinated action and fight this epidemic with everything we’ve got, on every level.”

San Francisco’s drug overdose deaths are rising at alarming rates. In 2017 there were 222 drug overdose deaths, in 2018 there were 259 and in 2019 there were 441.

The trend is not unique to San Francisco. Overdose deaths are up in the United States. There were 83,544 reported drug overdose deaths in the nation during a 12-month period ending in July 2020, a more than 24 percent increase from the previous 12-months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

City officials have supported the opening of safe injection sites to reduce overdose deaths, but are waiting for a change in state law to provide legal protections before they open any. However, previously proposed state bills that would have permitted safe injection sites have failed.

In December State Sen. Scott Wiener introduced the latest bill seeking to authorize San Francisco under state law to open safe injection sites along with Oakland and Los Angeles. The law would sunset in January 2027. The bill, Senate Bill 57, is scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Health Committee on March 10.


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