The opioid crisis could be mitigated locally with the passage of Assembly Bill 362, which authorizes medical supervision for users of illicit drugs. (Shutterstock)

Opinion: The Tenderloin needs an innovation solution like safe injection sites

Criminalizing drug use is ineffective in curbing overdoses

Anai Vivanco and Liberty Polk

Across the U.S., there is an ongoing opioid crisis— every city in the nation has felt the effects from this untreated calamity. The question is what are we doing as a nation, as a society, as communities to alleviate this crisis? Look at the Tenderloin District in San Francisco. There are between 4,000 and 8,000 homeless people living in San Francisco and an estimated half of these people live in the Tenderloin District— an estimated two-third of this population are addicted to opioids. People are defecating on the sidewalks and in the streets, crime is rampant, and people are suffering and dying. The City spends millions of dollars on giving out free hypodermic needles, cleaning up hundreds of thousands of needles lying on the ground, methadone treatments, housing, feeding, arrests and other futile attempts to solve this epidemic but as of yet, the problem remains the same. As fellow community members, we need to work together to reduce life-risking conditions that not only are detrimental to adults, but leaving a lasting imprint on our community children as they are exposed to these conditions every day.

We constantly see shrines honoring the dead displayed throughout our community. We may pass one on our walk way to the corner market, or drive by one located on the side of the road that’s usually associated with a car accident. It’s safe to say that we may feel a certain level of remorse every time we see a shrine, but don’t feel obligated to fully be empathetic. It’s not until we recognize the face in the photo on a shrine that finally stops us in our tracks and are forced to process the tragedy that just occurred.

It was during my walk to work in downtown San Francisco that I recognized the face of a young man taped on a brick wall of a single-room occupancy housing hotel (SRO) surrounded by candles and written notes commemorating his memory. I had just met the young man two months prior to his death, as he was registering at our community food bank where, in conversation, he shared about being new to The City and trying to gain independence. The young man had overdosed on fentanyl at the age of 22 in the Tenderloin District in San Francisco, two months after his arrival.

Many would still advocate criminalizing drug abuse as an attempt to overcome this tragic epidemic. In 2018, one in five drug-related arrests involved methamphetamine, and 36 percent of San Francisco’s drug arrests occurred in the Tenderloin, as reported by the San Francisco Department of Public Health in April 2019. With most arrests occurring in the Tenderloin, an area of high drug crime, the issue will be resolved in no time, right? Well, we should then ask ourselves, “Why do overdose fatalities continue to soar, regardless of the continuous effort to criminalize drug activities?!” Community leaders have taken a step back and realized new approaches need to be taken in order to tackle such community challenges.

Assembly Bill 362, authored by Assemblymemeber Susan Eggman and co-authored by Sen. Scott Wiener, cleared the state Assembly in May 2019. It authorizes San Francisco city officials to open safe injection sites where individuals can consume illicit recreational drugs under the supervision of medical staff. Other services will also be offered to individuals who express interest in improving their health, without passing judgment. However, efforts to launch these pilot programs have been stalled due to threats of prosecution from the Trump Administration, causing the resolution to not yet be mandated.

District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney oversees the Tenderloin and is frequently approached by residents and business owners to address the drug issue in the community. Supervisor Haney and San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced in February 2020 the introduction of legislation that will permit nonprofits to open safe injections sites in The City. Permits by the Department of Public Health are expected to be issued if and when AB 362 is approved by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Drug abuse is a public health concern that needs to be treated as it is— an illness. Community safety can be improved by providing medical supervision and adequate support to members in our community. As we wait for the results of AB 362, we can secure its approval by registering on leginfo.legislature.ca.gov to receive status updates of AB 362 and providing our support as it enters its hearing.

Like many communities throughout the country facing similar challenges, the Tenderloin needs advocates like us to give it a fighting chance to preserve its pride and prosperity. Help us initiate a progressive solution by voting yes on AB 362. Don’t find yourself forced to process a tragedy at the foot of a shrine.

Anai Vivanco and Liberty Polk are University of Southern California graduate students at the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

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