San Francisco—a city with one of the highest rates of overdose in the U.S.—is doubling down on the war on drugs by significantly beefing up policing and surveillance in its poorest neighborhood, Mayor London Breed announced in a press conference Tuesday.
But drug policy experts told VICE News the new measures won’t drive down drug use and will likely make the overdose crisis even worse.
Breed said the policing blitz, which is already underway, will focus on the Tenderloin district, ground zero for overdoses and known for having an “open-air drug market.”
“It is time that the reign of criminals who are destroying our city… comes to an end. And it comes to an end when we take the steps to be more aggressive with law enforcement, more aggressive with the changes in our policies, and less tolerant of all the bullshit that has destroyed our city,” Breed said.
She outlined some measures the city will take to combat drug use and selling, including sweeps by cops to arrest people with outstanding warrants; targeting drug dealers; banning street vending in certain areas to crack down on theft; and making it easier for cops to access camera footage from private businesses.
She also said police, social workers and other city employees will be “interrupting open-air substance use” by directing people using drugs to a site where they’ll be connected with addiction treatment resources.
“We are not giving people a choice anymore,” Breed said. “We are not going to just walk by and let someone use in broad daylight on the streets and not give them a choice between going to the location that we have identified… or going to jail.”
The plan also mentioned “expanding housing resources” but did not give specifics.
Breed noted that San Francisco’s operating budget for a city of less than 1 million is $12 billion. She vowed to beef up policing budgets for the next two years in order to carry out the plan.
“The residents of this city have been extremely generous in providing us with the resources we need to make a difference and now the priorities we need to make must be to protect them, must be to turn things around in their neighborhoods,” she said.
Leo Beletsky, a professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University, said the Tenderloin has already been subject to a federal-state policing blitz since 2019—and it hasn’t worked.
“The definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing and expecting a different result,” he said, describing the city’s new strategy as a public relations stunt.
Beletsky said increased enforcement only incentivizes drug suppliers to create more potent products in order to achieve more bang for their buck—the phenomenon that led to the proliferation of fentanyl in the illicit drug supply in the first place.
Arresting dealers can also be dangerous as it forces people to source drugs from unknown sources, which can increase the risk of overdose, and it creates a “power vacuum” on the street, which can lead to more violence, Beletsky added.
Claire Zagorski, program coordinator at the Pharmacy Addictions Research and Medicine Program at the University of Texas at Austin, said the approach to the Tenderloin won’t result in a “better San Francisco” but “a San Francisco that’s more aesthetically pleasing for the richest and most influential residents.”
“There’s an ugly but popular movement of hiding unhoused residents from the view of the wealthy, versus actually doing the hard and vital work of addressing the roots of homelessness and drug use,” she said.
Zagorksi said the city—notorious for its unaffordable housing—should be exploring more creative solutions to help its most vulnerable residents, who are more likely to be Black and people of color.
The mayor’s comments come as San Francisco recently launched mobile overdose teams comprised of health and fire officials as an innovative way of treating people who are overdosing.
Beletsky said overdose prevention sites, wide access to naloxone, quality treatment for addiction, and addressing the underlying issues of lack of housing and economic opportunity are more valuable than additional policing.
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