Sunday Commentary: No, San Francisco Can’t Shut Down Open-Air Drug Markets in 90 Days or Even a Year

Photograph: Jeff Chiu/AP

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

San Francisco, CA – Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  San Francisco Supervisor President Aaron Peskin believes somehow that they can close down open-air drug markets.  Never mind the history of the war on drugs and its epic and expensive failure.

In a recent op-ed, Peskin argued, “I asked for the Mayor to show us a plan to close the drug supermarkets in 90 days. Honestly, it shouldn’t take that long.  The Mayor has the power to order the police into the Plaza and arrest every drug dealer right now. She should do that, right now.”

If it were that easy—wouldn’t someone have done it a long time ago, everywhere?

Perhaps the most ironic part of his piece was this: “I am not for mass incarceration. It was ineffectual and it was racist.”

However, he argues, “But it is not going to hurt anyone to spend a few hours at our Hall of Justice and to have to account for their actions before a judge, particularly since this interaction gives us the ability to intervene with these young people and try to talk some sense into them.”

Who is he kidding?  It’s not going to hurt anyone?  We have data.

We know that even brief stays in jail can result in job losses, evictions and disruptions to family life, and health impacts for substance users.

Health impacts?  The Chronicle pointed out that “capricious arrests can be deadly. Studies have shown those who spend time incarcerated are at higher risk of overdosing; in the first two weeks after someone is released from jail or prison, they are 27 times more likely to overdose than the general population.”

So the idea that putting someone in a jail is not going to hurt anyone is not an evidence-based response.

Moreover, it is not like this would be a short-term fix.

We also know that the San Francisco Court system has been operating very slowly and the public defenders and other advocates are currently litigating because of the lack of adherence to speedy trial state laws and now Peskin thinks they can somehow arrest their way out of the problem.

On Saturday the San Francisco Chronicle Editorial Board pushed back, arguing, “A renewed push to jail people who use drugs wouldn’t work even if we wanted it to.”

They argued that “the proper response is not to ‘get tough.’ It’s to follow data-driven solutions.”

First of all, the numbers are staggering: “A 2016 study estimated that there were 25,000 people living in San Francisco who injected drugs — not even counting those who smoke them. In 2022, the city’s Department of Public Health estimated there were 8,758 unhoused people who had mental illness or suffered from substance use disorder. Of those, 3,070 had both diagnoses.”

So the short and quick answer is that San Francisco (and any community) simply lacks the capacity to deal with that volume of demand for treatment or housing.

Next there’s the fact: “Data suggests that arresting users and forcing them into treatment isn’t a particularly effective way of fighting addiction.”

Jeanette Zanipatin, California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, has noted the scarcity of treatment options.  So basically, if you compel people to get treatment, you take a bed away from those who are voluntarily seeking treatment and probably have a better chance of succeeding.

She explained, “An unintended consequence of creating a system where you are involuntarily committing people is that folks that are on the other end of the line are going to be impacted. It’s all part of the same system.”

The Chronicle points out: “We can’t arrest our way out of our drug problems, even if we wanted to. Nor can we meaningfully compel users into treatment; we can’t even meet the demand of the people who are raising their hands for help.”

What has been put forward is literally a tiny drop in the bucket.

The Chronicle points to the pilot program that Mayor Breed wants to start with.

She’s talking on the order of 30 residential treatment beds.  Thirty.

As the Chronicle puts it, “That’s a step in the right direction, but a drop in a bucket.”

That’s the understatement of the year.  It would be like addressing hospital bed problems during the height of COVID by adding just 30 beds.

I keep hearing from people, give it time.  Give it time?  The new DA has been on the job for a year.  By the time Boudin was on the job for a year, he was already facing a recall.  And that was during the heart of the pandemic.

We don’t need more time to do approaches that are not evidence-based.  We need more resources to do the things we know work.  That was the problem in 2016, it was the problem in 2020 when Chesa Boudin took over, and it’s the same problem now.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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1 Comment

  1. Ron Oertel

    Never mind the history of the war on drugs and its epic and expensive failure.

    Not the same thing as shutting down the “open air markets”. 

    No, San Francisco Can’t Shut Down Open-Air Drug Markets in 90 Days or Even a Year

    They could accomplish this within one day, if they chose to do so – easily.

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