San Francisco police cited people for possession of drug paraphernalia, in some cases moments after they were legally supplied syringes and pipes from publicly funded harm-reduction programs, The Examiner has found.
The citations were made during a recent blitz aimed at reducing open-air drug use in the Tenderloin.
Standing outside the Tenderloin Center, Jeff, who uses fentanyl and methamphetamine, said he was recently cited by police for holding a glass pipe that he had picked up at the same facility not long before officers stopped him.
“It sucks. I just looked up at the wrong time,” said Jeff, who is homeless. “Cops are definitely more aggressive these days.”
The issue highlights the inconsistent strategies employed by The City’s police, district attorney and public health service providers in reducing risky drug use and overdoses as well as in dealing with outdoor drug markets in public spaces.
As part of San Francisco’s harm-reduction approach to health and substance use, clean supplies for safer drug use — including syringes, pipes and antibacterial wipes — are available in some public health facilities in The City. Places that distribute harm reduction supplies include the Tenderloin Center, which opened in January and is slated to close at the end of the year, and at nonprofits, including Glide, HealthRight360 and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.
In California, it is lawful to possess syringes as well as supplies for safer smoking, including glass pipes and foil, which are made available for public health purposes and distributed from syringe services programs. The law also does not require people to have documentation, such as a receipt or ID, to prove where they obtained such materials.
California Health and Safety Code section 121349.1 states that staff, volunteers and syringe services participants “shall not be subject to criminal prosecution for possession of needles or syringes or any materials deemed by a local or state health department to be necessary to prevent the spread of communicable diseases, or to prevent drug overdose, injury, or disability acquired from an authorized needle and syringe exchange project entity.”
In 2018, the California Health and Safety Code was updated to expand materials that may be made available for public health purposes by syringe services programs, including glass pipes, foil and copper wire filters.
“Access to new smoke pipes can lead to the reduction of injection incidents among people who inject drugs, which increases their personal protective behaviors,” a factsheet from the California Department of Public Health reads.
So in July, harm reduction advocates were baffled when San Francisco police dramatically increased citations and arrests of people possessing drug paraphernalia.
Police issued at least 129 citations and arrests involving stand-alone possession of drug paraphernalia in July, compared with 89 issued in all of 2021 and the first six months of 2022 combined, the San Francisco Chronicle first reported.
Some of those citations were made just steps away from city-funded harm reduction programs that provide sterile drug use supplies, such as the Tenderloin Center at United Nations Plaza.
The experience didn’t deter Jeff from later using drugs with friends or returning to the facility another day for a hot meal and to replace the pipe he had lost. Jeff added that he lost the paper ticket and failed to show up to court for the citation.
The experience matched what other harm reduction service providers said happened outside their doors last month.
“Our staff have watched police go down the sidewalk and take away the supplies we just gave our program participants. We have definitely seen an uptick in this over the last few weeks,” said Laura Thomas, director of harm reduction policy at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. “It’s extremely frustrating. What we are doing is legal and supported by the City and County of San Francisco, by the State of California, and people have a legal right to possess harm reduction supplies we are giving them.”
Staff at Glide, a nonprofit providing health and basic needs services to homeless San Franciscans, noticed the same at its syringe services programs.
“These citations are disrupting our ability to provide public health services, prevent overdoses and protect people’s health and well being. People are choosing to protect their health by using clean supplies,” said Wes Saver, senior policy manager at Glide. “SFPD’s approach is truly awful. There has been no engagement with providers and we know this strategy only makes risk-taking behaviors worse than they already are.”
Experiences vary, however. One woman named Akisha told The Examiner that she picks up clean needles and pipes from harm-reduction centers to shoot heroin and smoke fentanyl without having to share or use contaminated materials. She’s never had any trouble with the police for carrying her supplies, she said while holding a piece of foil with residue alongside friends in United Nations Plaza.
District Attorney Brooke Jenkins said her office would dismiss 17 stand-alone paraphernalia citations. But legal and public health experts assert that the recent uptick highlights a disconnect between tough-on-crime policing and street medicine services.
“It’s problematic and it speaks to the need to have clarity as to what the DA’s policy is, and also an understanding that prosecuting people for having drug paraphernalia does not address the root issue, which is that people need access to treatment, housing and jobs and health services,” said Angela Chan, chief of policy for the San Francisco Public Defender’s office.
Jenkins, who was appointed by Mayor London Breed last month after the recall of Chesa Boudin, pledged to crack down on drug dealing, particularly in the tenderloin. But she has maintained that for now her office will maintain its policy of not prosecuting standalone charges for drug paraphernalia possession.
When asked if its citations for paraphernalia run afoul of state law protecting those who obtain it from a supervised site, SFPD did not answer directly.
Instead, in a statement to The Examiner, the department enumerated the spate of overdose deaths in San Francisco and thousands of grams of narcotics its officers have taken off the streets.
“While we believe the drug crisis in the tenderloin is not just a policing issue, but also is a public health issue, there is a policing role and responsibility to enforce the law and disrupt open air narcotics dealing and public narcotics usage,” the department wrote.
The District Attorney’s Office attributed the recent surge in case filings to a single rogue attorney and committed to withdrawing the charges. The unprecedented filings actually began, the office noted, shortly before Jenkins took office.
Still, she has not ruled out adjusting the office’s policy on standalone paraphernalia charges. She told The Examiner on Tuesday that her approach would be designed in collaboration with other city agencies.
“We’re not going to punitively work our way out of that situation. We need to be figuring out how we get these people into treatment and the ways we can incentivize them to get the treatment,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins said her office’s focus will be on “the dealers,” and not drug users.
When asked if officers were targeting a specific area, SFPD said that it is “working to identify crime hotspots.”
Police are hoping Jenkins gets on board.
“Our goal is to make constitutional narcotics arrest and constitutional seizures of narcotics to present the required evidence to enable the District Attorney’s Office to do their jobs effectively to hold narcotics offenders accountable. Our continued goal with all our partners is to save lives,” the Police Department wrote.
Scientific evidence for providing clean injecting and smoking supplies dates back to the HIV/AIDS crisis, which gave rise to safe needle exchanges in San Francisco and beyond to prevent disease spread among drug users.
Smoking supplies were added to the scope of harm reduction materials due to the significantly lower risk of overdose associated with smoking rather than injecting drugs. In addition, San Franciscans who use opioids have largely shifted away from injecting tar heroin to smoking fentanyl.
However, overdoses remain at high levels, largely due to fentanyl being 50 times more potent than heroin. As of June, 297 people had died of overdose in San Francisco in 2022, according to data from the Office of the Medical Examiner, with fentanyl being the most common substance associated with overdose deaths.
“This is not how you get people into treatment. This is not how you reduce overdoses. The academic research shows aggressive policing increases overdose vulnerability,” said Thomas. “If people feel they have to rush their drug use or use everything on them so they think they won’t get arrested, that dramatically increases vulnerability to overdose.”
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