Advocates say arresting SF Tenderloin's drug users could set off even more overdose deaths

Tara Campbell Image
Friday, June 16, 2023
Advocates say arresting SF drug users could cause more overdose deaths
Advocates say arresting San Francisco Tenderloin's drug users could set off even more overdose deaths.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Tensions are running high on the streets of San Francisco's Tenderloin with police now arresting drug users.

"The police presence it makes everyone pissed off," said Randal, a drug user who spoke with ABC7 News on Market Street.

California Highway Patrol and the California National Guard are teaming up with SFPD to get drug dealers and users off the streets. "Whether or not you want to call this the war on drugs, when you're prioritizing a punitive approach to people who use drugs, it does not work," said Gary McCoy, Vice President of Policy and Public Affairs at HealthRIGHT 360.

"What happens when they leave after withdrawing for four hours is, they're going to immediately go back out. They're going to find more drugs, except now they're going to be for fear of being caught. They're going to be using more at once so that they're not having to use this frequently out in the open."

It's reality Jacqui Berlinn knows all too well, her son Corey is on the streets addicted to fentanyl.

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"It can be more dangerous for these addicts because they might take the first thing they run into. Where normally they might take more precautions," said Berlinn, co-founder of Mothers Against Drug Addiction and Deaths.

Drug users are being offered treatment services in jail, but so far the city says nobody has accepted help.

"The sad reality is, out of those 25 people who were arrested, and even the ones who were released, the ones that didn't have warrants - none of them accepted the services that we were offering," said Mayor London Breed, in an interview with ABC7 News last week. "There comes a time where if people are not accepting the services, we can't just allow what we see on our streets to continue."

Berlin said she'd like to see action making services more easily accessible.

"Having resources available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, because a lot of the times the time someone is willing to get help is when they are cold at night, not in the middle of the day."

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"A balanced approach would be, yes, enforce existing laws with the opportunity for people to go into a center that's open 24 hours a day where they can get help," said McCoy, referencing what the city dubs as "wellness hubs," which could house safe consumption sites. "Where they can use off the streets, out of public visibility, doing it under supervision while they're being connected to other resources."

The mayor has been pumping the brakes on opening wellness hubs for months, citing legal concerns. Safe consumption sites are still illegal under federal law, but the mayor is in support the New York model, where a nonprofit is operating two safe consumption sites using private donations - not tax payer dollars - in theory making the city less liable.

And, nonprofits here like HealthRIGHT 360 are raising private funds, gearing up to open safe consumption sites once the city is ready to move forward.

"We've got the National Guard looped in and we've got CHP looped in. And we've still not opened a wellness hub," said McCoy.

The mayor is clear she is committed to opening up to three wellness hubs in the city, with funds set aside in her proposed two-year budget, along with other investments in treatment and recovery services.

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