By David M. Greenwald
San Francisco, CA – This week Governor Newsom and San Francisco leaders announced they are establishing a new task force to investigate opioid-linked deaths and poisonings to further hold drug traffickers accountable.
The task force will reportedly “treat opioid deaths in San Francisco similar to homicide cases.” The governors office stated they will be “employing standard operating procedures to document deaths, gather relevant evidence, process intelligence to further map out the supply of fentanyl and large crime syndicates, and hold drug traffickers accountable.”
Governor Newsom said, “The opioid crisis has claimed too many, and fentanyl traffickers must be held accountable including, as appropriate, for murder.
“This task force is fighting for those affected by this crisis — for victims and loved ones who deserve peace. Working together, we will continue providing treatment and resources to help those struggling with substance use — and secure justice for families who have lost loved ones.”
“Fentanyl is deadlier than any drug we’ve ever seen on our streets,” said Mayor London Breed. “We must treat the trafficking and sale of fentanyl more severely and people must be put on notice that pushing this drug could lead to homicide charges.”
“The new task force will equip the City and County of San Francisco with a deeply necessary investigative ability. Traditionally, overdoses have not been investigated as murders,” said District Attorney Brooke Jenkins.”
But critics have pushed back to argue that this is simply the perpetuation of failed war on drug policies.
San Francisco’s Elected Public Defender, Mano Raju, expressed concern with the policy.
“We are deeply concerned that many San Franciscans have had their lives profoundly harmed by fentanyl overdoses, including many of our clients and their families,” said Raju on Friday.
The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office believes there are alternatives to this approach and said on Friday they are “actively working to address this crisis through our End the Cycle program, whereby our social workers are connecting our clients to supportive services.”
The Task Force, Raju said, “is another step in the wrong direction toward the continued revival of the failed War on Drugs in SF. “
He noted, “Since the opioid public health crisis began in our city about three years ago, law enforcement and city leaders have formed numerous task forces that have enacted War on Drugs tactics, and overdoses have only increased.”
Despite these efforts, Raju said, “San Francisco is on track to reach a record number of overdoses this year. Relying on police and prosecutions to arrest and cage our way out of a public health crisis remains in direct conflict with decades of social and scientific data that show that these tactics do not work. “
In short, “Threatening to charge people with murder is unfortunately likely to result in more overdoses, as people will be afraid to call for help.”
The Public Defender’s office cites a report from Fair and Just Prosecution which noted such prosecutions “do not alleviate the risk of fatal overdoses; are ineffective as a deterrent to drug use, drug sales, and overdose deaths; can be legally problematic and consume significant resources; often target friends and family members; and worsen racial disparities in the system.”
The Drug Policy Alliance concluded that “drug-induced homicide prosecutions waste resources that could be spent on effective interventions.”
“We need to invest in harm reduction methods including life-saving tools like Narcan and fentanyl testing strips; on-demand and low-barrier substance use and mental health treatment; stable housing; long-term education investments; and job training to heal our community,” Raju said on Friday.
He concluded, “We urge leaders who are concerned by the rise in opioid overdoses to prioritize evidence-based public health strategies rather than throwing more public resources at a punitive approach that has failed time and time again.”