By David M. Greenwald
San Francisco, CA – Brooke Jenkins has prioritized cleaning up open air drug markets as her means of fixing what some believe is wrong with San Francisco. But, if history is a guide, the efforts to criminalize drug addiction through a new war on drugs will fail just as previous efforts have.
Supporters point to her commitment to cracking down on drug dealers: “We can’t be giving low-level misdemeanors to people who are selling one of the most lethal drugs, if not the most lethal drug this market has ever seen.”
But others note that the distinction between drug dealer and drug user is often fuzzy—where many drug dealers are simply users trying to finance their habit.
A week ago, Jenkins introduced a new policy that would bundle five misdemeanor citations for public drug use. A policy that criminalizes not only users but also the poor.
“So the police have begun citing individuals who are engaged in public and open drug use. We can’t become a city that just allows people to use drugs openly in public,” Jenkins said Friday in an interview with Stephanie Sierra of ABC 7 in San Francisco.. “So they will cite people that they see engaged in that activity.”
Brooks noted that, as of Friday, they had filed 148 cases with respect to drug dealing—though that’s roughly the same charging rate as under Boudin.
Brooks explained, “I expect to see perhaps similar rates as far as the charging, but what you’re going to see is a difference in the way that these cases are handled and the way that they’re resolved…”
But is Brooks simply going to face the same problem as Boudin and others?
Many have argued that criminalizing drug use does not work. That drug addiction is simply a public health crisis, not a criminal justice crisis. By emphasizing public drug use, Jenkins is focused on poor people, who are likely unhoused and therefore cannot use drugs in the privacy of their own homes.
The problem that Boudin’s plan suffered from—lack of resources for treatment—is not going away with Jenkins’ approach. In fact, because of the cost of law enforcement, it might be more strained than before.
Moreover, attempting to distinguish between dealers and users is unhelpful.
Experts such as the Drug Policy Alliance point out that the differentiation between drug sellers and drug users is problematic.
“Research and history have shown that the vilification and criminalization of people who sell drugs does not reduce problematic drug use, reduce the availability of drugs, or keep people who use drugs safer,” a 2019 policy paper by DPA pointed out.
Instead, they noted a 2012 survey which found that “43% of people who reported having sold drugs in the past year also reported that they met the criteria for a substance use disorder.”
Further, “Laws against drug selling are so broadly written that it is easy for people caught with drugs for personal use to get charged as dealers, even if they were not involved in selling at all.”
The Drug Policy Alliance said it “believes it is time to rethink the ‘drug dealer.’” Adding, “We must urgently assess what type of people actually fall into this category and how we as a society can respond to them in ways that will keep people and communities safer and healthier.”
There really isn’t a huge difference between Jenkins and Boudin here. But where there is a difference, the science we have to date suggests it won’t be effective.
The main difference is she wants to funnel poor people back into the criminal system after five offenses and create a false distinction between dealers and users, when for the most part the two categories overlap.
One thing is that she excluded anyone accused of dealing drugs from CJC (Criminal Justice Center). Does that make sense, given the huge overlap between user and dealer? I would argue no, you have not responded on this point that I have raised a number of times. I think that approach is deeply problematic because most so-called drug dealers are actually just users financing their own habits.
The second part that’s different is criminally charging five offenses. Basically, what that means is exactly what John Hamasaki suggested, you’re not adding funding to the system, so you are pushing a bunch of low-level offenders into custody rather than funding their services. That’s not going to work.
Other than that, there is no difference between what she is going to do and what Boudin did, and the same problem remains—insufficient funding for treatment programs—and without dealing with root causes like childhood trauma and untreated mental illness, there is not much that this is going to do.
So how is Jenkins expecting this to work when previous efforts at interdiction have failed?