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San Francisco Reaches Historic Overdose Levels As Other States Seek Improvement By Decriminalizing Drugs

The Mayor and Board of Supervisors briefly addressed San Francisco’s fatal overdose epidemic on October 20, 2020. According to the city’s meeting minutes, the discussion began with District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney inquiring about what the city intended to do to prevent more than the projected 700 fatal overdoses this year. 

Mayor Breed’s response was to defer responsibility for funding and implementing harm-reduction programs to nonprofits and the federal government, and signal that she saw her administration’s responsibility as cracking down on individual drug users.

Supervisor Haney followed up, asking what new measures would be taken by the City to prevent further deaths. Mayor Breed punted by asking that Supervisors with beneficial suggestions reach out with new ideas. 

Fast forward a few weeks and the city could end up exacerbating the crisis by ending it’s shelter in place (SIP) hotel rooms for the homeless program on December 21, four days before Christmas because it is “too expensive”. 

While City officials appear to publicly lack a plan on how to address the crisis, on November 3rd, Oregon voted to become the first state in America to decriminalize all drugs with a 59% majority voting in favor. The law was written using real-world scientific evidence that shows decriminalization improves outcomes for drug-users and societies at large. 

Some of the data that informed the Oregon law comes from the case of Portugal. Portugal passed a law two decades ago aims to treat substance abuse as a medical condition rather than criminal activity. Furthermore, it is a step towards police abolition and unequal legal treatment because people in possession of small amounts of drugs are not prosecuted. Instead, they are asked to pay a small fine or recieve a health assessment at a recovery center. 

This passage of Measure 110 is a small but vital human rights victory for the 1 in 11 Oregonians who are addicted to drugs because their medical condition is no longer criminalized. Furthermore, the law is expected to lead to a 91% decrease in drug possession arrests or convictions which disproportionately impact Black and Indigenous residents of Oregon.

Combining decriminalization with funding that is centered on impacted communities to use as they see fit (which is what they want) so that communities can heal is an evidence based plan that San Francisco lawmakers should be able to get behind. The funding for care and recovery can come from the hundreds of thousands of police work-hours and the legal apparatus which are no longer needed to enforce racist substance use laws. After a summer of revolt against violent criminalization of specific groups of people, one must wonder how the Mayor missed the message, or maybe they just aren’t listening. 

Photo Credit: “SFFD # 78 AV 6-2-13” by Paul Sullivan is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Fiona has a background in environmental science & justice and covers everything from global warming to housing. Her favorite thing to do in San Francisco is hiking up to Telegraph Hill.

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