Rethinking S.F.’s Failing War on Drugs

District Attorney George Gáscon is on his way to Portugal to see if drug decriminalization could be replicated in San Francisco. 

Last week, dozens of people gathered at City Hall for what ended up being a four-hour hearing on drug dealing in San Francisco. The Police Department presented slides on the neighborhoods where they conduct stings, and the numbers of arrests per month. The Budget and Legislative Analyst tried to calculate how much the city spends battling drug dealing each year. And theories were thrown around by the community and law enforcement about who these dealers were — drug users? Hondurans? East Bay residents?

A lot of data floated to the surface, but what became clear relatively quickly was that San Francisco is not tackling drug use and drug-dealing effectively. There is finger-pointing between departments, a wide array of belief systems on how to handle the situation, and a stark lack of creativity.

Drug dealing is not a small issue. The city’s Department of Public Health estimates that there are more than 22,000 intravenous drug users in San Francisco, who all have to source their supplies from somewhere. There is a rich and vibrant black market for drugs in the city, and no clear path on how to crush it.

While Supervisor Matt Haney — who called the hearing — prepares to launch a task force on drug dealing, District Attorney George Gáscon is looking farther afield. This month he heads to Portugal to learn exactly how that country legalized illicit substances, and if it could be done here. It’s a rare stance for a district attorney — who, as a reminder, is responsible for prosecuting crimes — to take.  But drug use is an area Gáscon and former-Public Defender Jeff Adachi (who once called the War on Drugs “a failing war on crumbs”) could agree on.

San Francisco likes to think it’s the first at everything, but in many ways Portugal has us beat. Despite being a religious country — 97 percent of its population identifies as Roman Catholic — in 2001, Portugal became the first nation in the world to decriminalize all illicit substances. Eighteen years later, through the ups and downs of liberal and conservative leadership, that law remains in place. For Gáscon, who has long fought a battle to decriminalize drug possession and use, it’s about time San Francisco took a good hard look at what Portugal’s been up to.

“I have been following the Portuguese experiment for quite some time,” he tells SF Weekly. “Always with an eye on the ball that drug use should be decriminalized. They claim they have had a reduction in organized crime, in the drug trade, in drug-related deaths. I’d like to see it first-hand. I’ve read a lot about it, and now I want to go and kick the tires, if you will.”


While we’ve seen first-hand in San Francisco how arming drug users with knowledge and overdose reversal medicine saves hundreds of lives each year, Portugal has taken it to the next level. After a massive rise in heroin use in the 1990s affected all social classes and quickly became a major public health crisis, the country made a bold move: It would no longer criminalize people who possessed what they considered a 10-day supply of drugs. Drug dealers are still sent to jail, but anyone caught with a small amount is fined between 25 and 150 euros, and issued a summons to appear in front of a commission. That group includes a lawyer, psychiatrist, and social worker, to help the person who uses drugs access treatment and support. Quite simply, they’ve flipped the issue of drug use from a criminal issue to a health one.

The resulting statistics coming out of Portugal are remarkable. While harm reduction efforts have been proven scientifically successful time and again, it’s seldom been seen on such a scale as in Portugal. When the heroin epidemic was peaking in the late ’90s to nearly 100,000 people nationwide, HIV infection rates went with it. In 2000, the country saw an all-time high of 104 infections per million people. Fifteen years later, after legalization, that number dropped to four infections per million.

Treatment numbers have also risen. From 1998 to 2011, the number of people in treatment for drug use rose 60 percent. And with a reduction in demand comes a weaker economic market — convictions and imprisonments of drug traffickers fell 50 percent from 2001 to 2015.

Many harm-reduction activists would argue that Portugal’s drug policy still isn’t perfect — frontline workers still battle for safe consumption sites, needle exchanges, and better distribution programs for naloxone, the overdose reversal drug. But the strides they’ve made in addressing a catastrophic health crisis are remarkable, and beg the question: Why hasn’t anyone else followed?

Gáscon thinks we’re simply not there yet. And he would know, he’s been on the political and social frontlines. In 2014, he co-authored Proposition 47, a California ballot measure that, among other things, reduced personal drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. At the time, it was a really controversial issue. Few were talking about decriminalizing drugs beyond marijuana.

“It was lonely at the beginning,” Gáscon says. “In 2013, when we were talking about it, I couldn’t get a lot of support.”

But as Californians got used to the idea it began to take hold, and it ended up passing with 60 percent of the vote.

Over the years, you can track the change in conversation. Two years after Proposition 47 passed, Prop. 64 legalized marijuana statewide. The hot topic this year is safe consumption sites, which passed the California Assembly and Senate in 2018 before dying on then-Governor Jerry Brown’s desk. This year it’s sailing through both on its way to Gov. Gavin Newsom, and in San Francisco, it’s become de rigueur that supervisors would support such a thing.

So while it may seem like a pipe dream that extreme decriminalization or even legalization of heroin, methamphetamines, fentanyl, and other drugs could happen in San Francisco, it’s not impossible.

And that is perhaps where the conversation should have landed in last week’s drug dealing hearing.

“Once you start removing the criminal component so people can actually deal with their addiction through a legalized process — they don’t have to buy bad drugs on the street, they don’t run the risk of consuming something laced with fentanyl — it will take away the economic incentive for people to be peddling drugs on the street the way they do today,” Gáscon says.

He’s not alone in his theory. Laura Thomas, deputy state director of the California office of the Drug Policy Alliance, says we’re moving slowly in the right direction. Last year, the Drug Policy Alliance sent 70 delegates to Portugal to study the country’s efforts. 

“San Francisco is well-positioned to take the next steps towards decriminalizing drug use and people who use drugs,” Thomas says. “It will take a lot of political will, but look at how far we’ve come on supervised consumption services, for example, or closing the juvenile justice facility. Both of those were seen as impossible just a few years ago.

“Changing how we approach drugs and people who use drugs in this country is a long struggle and it takes every kind of tool and strategy we have,” she adds. “That includes the people on the ground — people who use drugs have been at the forefront of every single fight we’ve won, from syringe access to marijuana legalization to sentencing reform. And elected officials coming on board and taking strong stances are major game changers in how people view these issues. Gáscon has been a leader on drug policy for years. We wouldn’t be where we are in S.F. without his stances on these issues.”

Gáscon’s trip to Portugal in May will be jam-packed. He’s visiting mobile consumption rooms, methadone clinics, national centers for addictive behaviors, and plans on talking to doctors, psychiatrists, people who use drugs, lawyers, and politicians, all with an eye on how we can replicate their successes in San Francisco.

“I want to get to the point where we’re actually having serious conversations about decriminalizing drug use in this country, and put in the context of a public health matter,” he says. “We’re not going to get anywhere by criminalizing people for this.”

A local task force on drug dealing will no doubt be useful in addressing some of the symptoms of drug dealing in San Francisco. But as long as there are people who use, there will be a demand for supply. And if even our district attorney doesn’t believe we can arrest our way out of this problem, that’s a sign that it’s time to reassess our drug laws and our priorities.   

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