To Fight Overdose Deaths, San Francisco Turns to Injunctions for Drug Dealers

A screenshot of San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, Mayor London Breed and Police Chief William “Bill” Scott discussing the use of civil injunctions to keep repeat drug dealers out of the city’s Tenderloin district.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Aiming to combat an epidemic of overdose deaths and open-air drug dealing in one of San Francisco’s most notorious neighborhoods, the City Attorney’s Office is seeking civil injunctions against 28 repeat drug dealers who sell their wares in the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood.

“These lawsuits are designed to help stop the brazen open-air drug dealing that has plagued this neighborhood at the center of our city’s opioid crisis,” San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said during a livestreamed press conference from City Hall on Thursday.

In the roughly 50-block area in the heart of San Francisco, it’s all too common to see makeshift shelters and heaps of trash dotting the sidewalks, human beings sprawled out on sidewalks, and people openly selling drugs and injecting needles in their skin.

The injunctions will target 28 people who live outside the Tenderloin but have been arrested for selling fentanyl, heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine there at least twice over the last 18 months. The arrests must have led to the filing of criminal charges or requests to revoke bail. Each defendant will have a chance to contest the requested injunction in state court before it becomes effective, Herrera said.

“We are focused on the predatory, repeat dealers selling the most dangerous drugs, including those leading to the most overdose deaths,” Herrera said.

Those who violate the injunctions will face a $6,000 fine, misdemeanor arrest and confiscation of illegal drugs and contraband, Herrera added.

The action comes as San Francisco struggles with a precipitous rise in overdose deaths. At least 441 people died from drug overdoses in the city in 2019, a 70% spike over the year prior. More than half of those 441 deaths were related to fentanyl, a prescription opioid that can be up to 100 times more powerful than morphine.

In addition to having the highest concentration of children in the city, the Tenderloin also has the highest rate of fatal drug overdoses. This year alone, 81 people have died of drug overdoses there.

In May, University of California Hastings College of the Law and others located in the Tenderloin sued the city, claiming San Francisco officials had for too long treated the neighborhood as a “containment zone” for homelessness and illegal drug activity. The city settled that lawsuit in June, vowing to move hundreds of people who pitched tents on sidewalks into hotels.

During the press conference Thursday, Mayor London Breed said 30 tents occupy the Tenderloin today, compared to nearly 400 tents counted in May.

While the settlement helped move hundreds of homeless people and their tents off the Tenderloin’s streets, it did not address another major problem complained of in the lawsuit — namely, open-air drug dealing and drug use.

Breed said she hopes Thursday’s actions will help change the city’s reputation as being “the place to go and sell drugs.”

“We cannot continue to let the Tenderloin be the breeding ground for all that is problematic and challenging in our city,” Breed said.

Also speaking at the press conference, San Francisco Police Chief William “Bill” Scott said the injunctions will give police officers “another tool in their tool kit” to hold repeat drug dealers accountable.

During a recent three-month operation, police arrested 267 people for illegal drug dealing. Scott called the arrests “a drop in the bucket.”

Police seized $144,000 in cash and 700,000 grams of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, fentanyl and other drugs, he said.

Among the 267 arrested, 210 were repeat offenders, 36 had been arrested twice since May 15, and 58 lived outside the city of San Francisco.

“We cannot and will not further tolerate drug dealers coming into the Tenderloin from wherever they’re coming throughout the Bay Area to ruin our community,” Scott said.

This past November, San Francisco voters elected Chesa Boudin as the city’s new district attorney. The former public defender ran on a platform of ending mass incarceration by prioritizing violent crime over drug offenses.

While Boudin maintains that “tough on crime” policies have failed to make communities safer, critics have argued that a more lenient approach to drug offenses has exacerbated the city’s problems with drug addiction, homelessness and mental health.

In a statement Thursday, Boudin said Herrera did not consult his office about the proposed injunctions, which he said appear to target “low-level drug dealers” already being actively prosecuted and for whom many have existing stayaway orders.

“We urge the city to collaborate on new solutions to the decades-long failed approach to the drug crisis,” Boudin said. “Until the city is serious about treating addiction and the root causes of drug use and selling, these recycled, punishment-focused approaches are unlikely to succeed at doing anything more than making headlines.”

In a statement Thursday, San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju said while he agrees that drug use in the Tenderloin is a serious public health problem that must be addressed, he disagrees with using the legal system to target “low-level, subsistence street level sellers” instead of providing alternatives in the form of housing, job training, and employment.

“The City Attorney’s proposed injunction is another chapter in the war on drugs that has simply failed to impact drug use or sales, while harming low-income people and communities of color,” Raju said. “We should use our resources to provide meaningful alternatives to street level dealers — including housing, job training, and employment — and also focus on getting at the source of the drug trade, which will continue to produce drugs so long as the demand exists.”

Breed and Herrera acknowledged on Thursday that this action alone will not serve as a “silver bullet” to solve all of the Tenderloin’s problems.

“It’s going to take helping with homelessness,” Breed said. “It’s going to take drug treatment and supporting low-income people and families who live in that community.”

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