San Francisco cracks down on open-air drug markets
Law enforcement is optimistic but warns of a long road ahead
San Francisco residents and business owners are fed up with the public drug use and rising crime pushing major retailers out of the city. When Nordstrom closed its flagship location in August after 35 years, it joined more than 17 other retailers that had left Union Square since 2020. Another store, Whole Foods Market, turned out the lights in April, after a 13-month run in which employees made 568 emergency calls documenting thefts, assaults, and a fatal fentanyl and methamphetamine overdose in a store restroom.
The closures point to a public disorder crisis exacerbated by flourishing open-air drug markets especially rampant in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood known for out-of-control homelessness, drug use, and crime.
In response to growing community frustration, local and federal law enforcement officials launched a crackdown on the illicit trade earlier this year. California Gov. Gavin Newsom deployed state Highway Patrol officers and National Guard members to the city in May. “We’re not enforcing existing laws,” Newsom told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We’re not prosecuting the lawbreakers.”
Over six months later, the coalition of local and national agencies says it is making significant progress in clamping down on the deadly trade. But it warns that consistent vigilance rather than a burst of activity and resources will successfully reestablish public order. Public safety experts argue that lenient penalties for drug possession, which prevent the justice system from compelling addicts into treatment, will make long-term progress difficult to sustain.
San Francisco Police Department spokesman Evan Sernoffsky attributed the uptick in drug dealing and public drug use to pandemic closures and the prevalence of the potent synthetic opioid, fentanyl. Drug dealers became entrenched in certain parts of the city, and in the Tenderloin neighborhood, pandemic restrictions limited how city agencies could respond to high numbers of drug dealing and drug use. “We were really challenged with two huge fatal epidemics simultaneously,” he said.
At the same time, former District Attorney Chesa Boudin, known as one of the nation’s most liberal prosecutors, sought to lower jail populations by ending the use of cash bail and rarely prosecuting low-level crimes like shoplifting and public drug use. Voters recalled Boudin in June 2022, accusing him of siding with criminals and putting residents at risk.
Boudin’s tenure “hobbled” the police department, said Bob Cooke, a retired state narcotics special agent supervisor who used to work in the Bay Area. “They couldn’t do anything,” he said. “They would arrest people, but then they couldn’t be prosecuted.” Cooke now serves as the law enforcement coordinator for the Western States Information Network, which facilitates information sharing among law enforcement agencies.
Sernoffsky with the SFPD, which is spearheading the drug market crackdown, said current District Attorney Brooke Jenkins is committed to working with the department to get drug dealers off the streets. “She said, we’re going to hold people who are committing these crimes accountable,” he said. “And we’re making the arrests.”
Jenkins’ office has filed a record number of felony narcotics cases this year—566 by Aug. 23—since 2018. Federal officials are fast-tracking prosecutions for some low-level dealers, taking pressure off of the city’s backlogged court system, Sernoffsky said.
So far, the police department has arrested 478 people for dealing drugs, according to Sernoffsky, and seized over 100 kilograms of fentanyl—potentially enough to kill 50 million people. The average buyer spends between $99 and $200 for one gram of fentanyl on the street. The department’s felon fugitive recovery enforcement team is also making a push to track down people with outstanding warrants who failed to show up in court.
“We’ve also been more aggressive about holding people accountable who are openly using drugs,” he said. “People who are splayed out on the street smoking fentanyl openly, creating danger to themselves and the community around them.”
Critics argue the approach unfairly punishes people in the grip of addiction and puts them at greater risk of overdosing since they are consuming illicit drugs in the shadows. Sernoffsky acknowledged the push is controversial, but pointed out that public drug use is against the law. “We need to take action to do whatever we can to get those people the help that they need,” he said.
In 2020, a record 720 people died from drug overdoses in San Francisco and deaths remained above 600 during the next two years. The city is on track to hit over 800 deaths if overdoses continue at their current pace this year.
Sernoffsky said the crackdown is making a difference, but he emphasized that long-term change will take time. “The challenge for us is this needs to be something we sustain,” he said. “The ultimate goal here is to dislodge these drug dealers who have basically learned that they have easy access to users here. … That takes, unfortunately, some time to disrupt, but it’s something we’re committed to.”
But some experts warn the city won’t see enduring change if there is no way to compel addicts into treatment. Users have access to addiction treatment in the county jail through Jail Health Services, but these services are voluntary. When drug users are released, usually soon after they’ve sobered up, the city’s Department of Public Health offers another round of services and support. “There is nothing we can really do to compel somebody to get services,” Sernoffsky said. “That is their choice.”
Ron Brooks, who spent 38 years in law enforcement, said California’s Proposition 47 makes it difficult to get users the treatment they need. Brooks served as the assistant chief of the Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement in the California Department of Justice. In 2014, Proposition 47 downgraded simple drug possession to a misdemeanor. This effectively eliminated drug courts, Brooks said, a key tool for intervening in the lives of addicts without locking them up indefinitely.
Drug court judges use the threat of prison to compel addicts into treatment, with the understanding that they will likely relapse several times. If a participant completes the court’s rehabilitation program, they can avoid a stint behind bars and get their criminal offenses dismissed from their record. “If all else failed, then we would lock them up,” said Brooks.“Drug courts don’t work anymore, because there’s no consequence.”
Proposition 47 removed the threat of significant jail time. Users can pay a fine, spend a weekend in the county jail, or complete a community service project. In June, The San Francisco Standard reported that none of the 53 people arrested or cited for public drug use since the crackdown began May 30 had accepted offers of treatment when they left jail.
“We have to start holding people accountable for their actions,” said Cooke, with Western States Information Network. “You just can’t expect people to change without having them be held responsible.”
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