Slow Burn: S.F. Moves Slowly to Sort Out Its Drug Problems

What happens when government moves too slowly for its people? In some places, you might get a protest or a riot, or even a ballot initiative.

In San Francisco, you get a box filled with used needles nailed to a tree.

Civic Center is the Beaux Arts meeting place for some of the city's roughly 16,000 intravenous drug users, many who sleep in the nearby Tenderloin and shower in the restrooms at the Main Library.

To better service their needs, an anonymous activist nailed a red plastic box with a biohazard warning sticker on one of the trees outside the Bill Graham Auditorium. It's a drop-box for used hypodermic needles, complete with literature on HIV/AIDS protection.

The box, which was first noticed by gadfly blogger Michael Petrelis, sends a message.

The message isn't that there's not enough drop-boxes for the 2.4 million needles passed out annually at city-sanctioned needle exchanges (though with just five city-sanctioned needle drop-boxes, there probably aren't). The message is that San Francisco still has a bad drug problem. And despite loads of reports, reams of data, and enough anecdotes for a lifetime of drugged-out Herb Caen columns showing the city needs to do something about drugs on the streets, San Francisco is having trouble taking the steps toward progress.

In April 2012, the city did what any bureaucracy does best when confronted with an intractable problem: It convened a meeting.

For hours, the city's Human Rights Commission listened to hundreds of people — activists and attorneys, experts and professors, dope fiends and doctors — offer testimony on what's wrong with the city's approach to the drug problem. Then they offered solutions on how to fix it.

Fast forward 30 months. On Election Day last month, the Human Rights Commission finally issued a report … which did nothing more than document what went on at the 2012 meeting.

Drug activists were expecting to get a lot more out of that report than just meeting minutes, especially after so much time had passed. They wanted full “findings” and calls for action issued to key players, including police, prosecutors, and public health officials.

What's more, the meeting report was so late that some of the “community findings” noted in the 29-page report references legislation that's long since come and gone (and, in one instance, failed).

“I don't know why that took so long,” says Laura Thomas, deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, who testified at the hearing (she wrote a letter to the HRC inquiring as to the nature of the delay in May 2013).

Susan Christian, a Yale-educated prosecutor in District Attorney George Gascon's office who serves as the commission's chair, says that staffing shortages were partly to blame for the late report. There wasn't anyone available to put it together, and other work took precedent.

That's perfectly plausible and sounds better than the rumor that swirled last spring, which suggested that somebody (nobody can say who) at City Hall tried to bury anything that indicated the city was not dealing with its drug problem.

Right now, the HRC is presenting that delayed report to key players at the Hall of Justice and elsewhere. Cops are being told to end the age-old practice of buy-busts, legislators are informed of the need for safe-injection sites for heroin users, and everyone is hearing that we need to do away with prohibition on jobs and housing for drug offenders.

In short, the report offered nothing stakeholders hadn't already heard.

So what's next? More meetings, possibly another report, and then maybe some action. Will that take another 30 months? “I hope not,” says Christian. Ever the professional, she stays composed during a recent interview, but behind the tight smile you can feel frustration.

But when it comes to fighting illegal drugs, San Francisco isn't just hamstrung by bureaucracy and prone to inertia. It's also grappling with its reactionary approach.

Look at the “crack pipe exchange” episode earlier this year. Data shows how hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS can be spread by sharing crack pipes. So the city's HIV Prevention Planning Council, an ad hoc collection of health workers, activists and city employees, suggested the city consider distributing crack pipes along with needles. That suggestion was quickly squashed by the Mayor's Office, which wanted to avoid “any Fox News SF headlines on this,” according to emails dug up by the Bay Area Reporter.

Headlines versus health. Headlines prevailed.

And even victories in San Francisco weren't enough to bring the city toward progress. Drug arrests dropped for the sixth straight year in San Francisco in 2013, which is great until you get to the part that says half of the 1,300 people with felony drug arrests were black. That's not progress.

Gascon is one of the most liberal prosecutors in the state on drug crime, and led the statewide push for Prop. 47, drug crime reform that means low-level drug possession can be charged as a misdemeanor instead of a felony. That's good for the same inner city heroin users who might patronize the tree-borne drop box, one of whom was charged with a felony by Gascon's office for possessing overdose drug naloxone earlier this year.

As for the box, it's now gone. It was possibly removed by city workers. Hanging a box on a tree might keep dirty needles out of the trash or the street. But taking matters into your own hands can't stand: It violates city policy.

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