New Hamsterdam: A silver lining in S.F.'s crime-lab fiasco?

That dope dealers have little to fear on the streets of San Francisco these days is generally accepted. Since allegations of cocaine-skimming and mishandling of evidence forced the closure of the San Francisco Police Department crime lab's drug unit in March, prosecutors have dismissed more than 600 narcotics cases.

Many of those may be refiled, according to Brian Buckelew, spokesman for the San Francisco District Attorney's office. Still, "It is undeniable that there are few narcotics cases, if any, going to trial these days," he wrote in an e-mail.

Is that a bad thing? The American criminal justice system has struggled for centuries with its approach to drugs and alcohol. And in the broadly tolerant legal milieu that is San Francisco, it's perhaps unsurprising that some are applauding, rather than lamenting, law enforcement's sudden inability to stanch drug sales.

Criminal defense attorneys go so far as to say the crime lab scandal has had a "cleansing" influence on the administration of justice, allowing more time and resources to be devoted to serious cases that don't revolve around the buying or selling of illegal intoxicants. According to this view, the Hall of Justice is now reminiscent of "Hamsterdam," the enclave of decriminalized drug use established by a savvy police commander in the HBO series The Wire.

"It's really given sort of a timeout to the whole drug war," says Robert Dunlap, co-manager of the felony unit at the public defender's office. "I hope this would last longer than it's probably going to. ... I think it would really have a cleansing effect, because it could dedicate so much more resources to what's really important."

Stuart Hanlon, a private criminal defense attorney, says, "You go into prelim courts and you actually get a prelim hearing, because the judge isn't spending all morning on some stupid drug cases."

Buckelew says this is a simplistic way of looking at drug sales, which often bring violence in their wake, particularly in neighborhoods where dealing is heavily concentrated. "The sad consequence of this temporary 'cleansing' is that neighborhoods most affected by drug dealing, such as the Tenderloin and the Mission, have undergone a reverse cleansing of sorts and regressed back to how things were before the SFPD drug crackdown last August," he says. (Police Chief George Gascón has launched multiple drug-sweep campaigns in the Tenderloin since last year, resulting in hundreds of arrests.)

Dina Hilliard, a Tenderloin resident and associate manager at the North of Market/Tenderloin Community Benefit District, agrees that the situation on the streets has worsened over the past few months with the lack of prosecutions. "There was a while when the chief was cracking down that we saw a big difference in the drug activity on the street," she says. "I don't think the streets are as bad as they were before, but I definitely think we've backslid a little bit."

In other words, what constitutes "cleansing" depends on whomyou ask — and what street you'reasking on.

 
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