Doing the Minimums: If All Else Fails, Try Bigger Penalties

The federal drug cops posted to San Francisco don't have to go far to find the bad guys: They see them every day on the way into work. The local office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, on Golden Gate Avenue in Civic Center, is conveniently located smack dab in one of the largest open-air drug markets on the West Coast.

In other cities, posting the federal courthouse and the DEA agents on the front lines of the war they're supposed to be fighting might make a difference. Here, it does not. And how can it? This is the Tenderloin, after all. The word itself is loaded: Journalists use it whenever there's a crime, blight, or gentrification story to be done, tourists use it as a watchword for the place they've heard to avoid (and just where is it, exactly?), and the city's longer-term tourists, here for a few years in their 20s and 30s on their way to something else, use it as the symbol of all that's wrong and fucked up in their city of the moment — but, as they'll admit to themselves as they step over and around the human wreckage and effluvia on their way for a banh mi or a whiskey cocktail or a fine Thai meal on Larkin Street, the TL is also kinda… cool.

The TL is also where anyone with a few grams of anything can go to make an almost-guaranteed sale. The assertion makes some liberals bristle, but drug cops know it: Commuting next to businessmen and social-media managers on the morning BART are drug dealers. Lots of them. This is real: During the four-day BART strikes in October and July, the drug markets were noticeably quieter, as the San Francisco Appeal reported last month.

It makes sense. Drug dealers are criminals, but they're not dumb. They're business people and, as they adapt to police procedure and addict behavior, innovators, even. But no need to innovate with the irresistible TL available. Only a fool would avoid the thousands of formerly homeless, formerly incarcerated, otherwise-vulnerable customers to sling their wares somewhere less reliable and more dangerous. Where else would you expect them to go? It would be like Apple eschewing Palo Alto for its newest iPhone release launch in favor of… well, the Tenderloin.

For now, the U.S. Attorney wants at least some of them to go to federal prison for a year. In October, with embedded news cameras from ABC 7 rolling, the DEA and SFPD arrested 29 people — repeat drug dealers, some of whom had been selling drugs in the Tenderloin since the 1990s, one of whom had been arrested 50 times, police told the cameras. Last week, a grand jury returned indictments on 11 of them: some as young as 21, one as old as 54, eight of them women, mostly black.

Why are the feds busting small-time street dealers? Because nothing else will work: San Francisco's much-vaunted drug courts and soft hands on criminal justice might keep the county jail population low and put Gov. Jerry Brown on the path to achieving a federal court order to empty out the prisons, but it's not keeping drug dealers off the streets. Far from it. Cops and dealers, many of whom are on a first-name basis, know it's a silly game. Pick someone up, they'll be back out on the corner before too long.

Federal charges are different. There is no drug court, and federal law provides a one-year prison term as a mandatory minimum for slanging within 1,000 feet of a school — and with schools on Golden Gate Avenue, on Turk, on Eddy, and on Jones Street, that means most of the Tenderloin is a ticket to real prison. Operation Safe Schools, as U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag called the sweeps, is just a warning. Everyone who treats the Tenderloin as an open-air drug market should be on notice: Law enforcement is paying attention.

If this sounds familiar, it should. The new police chief, freshly arrived from Arizona, took one look at the Tenderloin and was horrified. He ordered sweeps; drug dealers were arrested. That was in 2009. The name of the operation: Operation Safe Schools. Save shutting down BART, this is the best drug-enforcement strategy they've got.

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