Drug Policy Alliance and National Harm Reduction Coalition issue joint statement condemning San Francisco’s forced treatment scheme and arrests of people who use drugs
San Francisco’s effort to arrest drug users will not save lives and is counterproductive to efforts to reduce harms of drug use and improve public safety
SAN FRANCISCO, CA, June 13, 2023 – On Thursday, June 8, San Francisco unveiled its plan to “address the fentanyl crisis” by activating the Sheriff’s Emergency Services Unit (ESU), 130 officers focused on arresting drug users and forcing them into drug treatment. This is a component of Mayor London Breed’s efforts to increase punishments, policing and investing in the criminal legal system as the primary response to myriad issues in the city. Fifty-eight arrests were made between May 30 and June 8 related to public intoxication and drug possession in the Tenderloin and south of Market neighborhoods. About 60% of those arrests involved people of color (25 were Latinos, 9 were Black, and one was an American Indian). In response, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and the National Harm Reduction Coalition (NHRC) released the following statement:
The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and National Harm Reduction Coalition (NHRC) strongly oppose San Francisco’s plan to arrest people using drugs and “compel” them into treatment and demand the full stop of this operation. We call upon Mayor Breed to shift resources to prioritize evidence-based solutions to address the root causes of rising overdoses and homelessness in San Francisco, instead of investing in police and the criminal legal system. San Francisco’s residents need access to supportive housing, overdose prevention centers, and voluntary mental and behavioral health services that are culturally and linguistically relevant to the communities they serve. The funds that will go toward the pilot would be better spent strengthening efforts to address the ongoing overdose crisis and connect people to resources.
Jeannette Zanipatin, California State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance:
“It is shameful that San Francisco’s politicians are escalating the war on drugs at a time when overdoses are on the rise. Doubling down on drug war strategies that brought us to where we are today will only contribute to more loss of life. The increased police presence will also disrupt the safety of the immigrant community by eliciting stress and fear of police interaction, making it less likely that they will access services in the event of a health emergency. This population and other marginalized communities deserve real solutions on all fronts, not more criminalization that will only exacerbate barriers to health interventions. We call on government officials in San Francisco to not repeat mistakes of the past and make substantial investments that increase access to treatment and overdose prevention services.”
Laura Guzman, Acting Executive Director at National Harm Reduction Coalition:
“Increasing the police force and arrests will do nothing to address the overdose crisis, but will lead to more preventable deaths. It will also increase racial disparities and San Francisco’s over-reliance on policing. Sheriff Miyamoto calls this a ‘tough love’ approach and claims that, ‘without the threat of jail time, the city has no way of compelling individuals to participate in proven programs that address the root causes of addiction.’ We disagree on all fronts. Subjecting people to police contact and locking them up is not love. San Francisco is in fact aware of other options to save lives and help people access treatment and at times has chosen to partially invest in them — like the overdose prevention component of the Tenderloin Linkage Center, which saved 333 lives and offered access to safety and support. And it even led many others to voluntarily access treatment.”
From January to April of this year, 268 people have lost their lives to a preventable overdose in San Francisco. That’s 78 more people than in the same period in 2022. Black and Latino communities have been disproportionately impacted. In fact, while Black people account for 6% of the county’s population, they made up 30% of all overdoses in San Francisco in the first four months of 2023. Similarly, Latinos experienced 18% of overdoses despite making up less than 16% of the population in San Francisco. What is most alarming is that these two communities have seen more than a 60% increase in deaths when compared with last year.
San Francisco’s drug enforcement proposals mirror drug war policies of the past, which have been shown to have a devastating impact. In particular, they have been responsible for vast disparities within the criminal legal system and continue to lead to higher rates of overdose. The evidence demonstrates that incarceration, even for a short period of time, contributes to increased overdose risk. This is due to loss of tolerance during periods of abstinence and limited access to treatment like Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) and naloxone while incarcerated and when released. Arresting people destabilizes them by disrupting access to health care and social supports, which are critical resources for people living at the intersection of homelessness and drug use. In response to a request from city leaders, Governor Gavin Newsom has already authorized California Highway Patrol (CHP) to increase police presence in certain neighborhoods and California Guard officers to investigate “drug dealing rings.” We know from 50 years of evidence that prioritizing law enforcement approaches over public health methods to reduce overdoses will only contribute to the destabilization of marginalized communities and push people away from services and resources that can keep them alive and safe.