SF’s failed ‘War on Drugs’ needs innovation to transform the status quo

by Hadi Razzaq, Managing Attorney for the Investigation Unit of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office

San Francisco has historically responded to street-level drug activity in the same way: periodically cracking down on low-level drug sellers by ramping up policing. But arresting and imprisoning people who sell drugs on the street has neither reduced the harms associated with drug use, as evidenced by the 259 overdose deaths in 2018, nor made a meaningful dent in drug sales. It targets the wrong people and wastes valuable public resources.

In April 2019, Supervisor Matt Haney called a hearing on street-level drug dealing, aptly calling it a public safety and health crisis. He invited various city departments and community organizations to testify in order to find lasting solutions to address this issue that often puts San Francisco in the national spotlight for the wrong reasons.

At the hearing, the San Francisco Police Department suggested that armed drug lords are infiltrating our City and slinging huge quantities of drugs. SFPD emphasized its focus on mid-to-high level dealers and claimed that users are only a “very small number of dealers.” SFPD touted the efficacy of “buy-busts” – where undercover officers pretend to be addicts, offer to buy drugs from unsophisticated sellers on the street, and a team of up to eight officers coordinates the arrest – as easy wins for prosecutors in court.

I testified for the Public Defender’s Office, which has long been frustrated by SFPD using the number of arrests and prosecutions in drug sale cases as its benchmark of success, rather than the quantity of drugs seized or the impact on drug use. We represent clients in hundreds of drug cases each year and are keenly aware that many people selling drugs suffer from addiction, sell small amounts to support personal use, and endure mental health issues, poverty, and homelessness. Many other street-level sellers make far below minimum wage. Thus, it was hard to believe that SFPD would consider our clients big-time drug dealers.

The supervisors noted the incongruity between these depictions, so the Public Defender’s Office decided to examine the police reports and let the data speak for itself.

From January 2017 through April 2019, the Public Defender represented over 70% of the people accused of drug sales or possession for sale in San Francisco. Given our mandate to represent indigent clients, this statistic shows the majority of people arrested were deemed unable to afford an attorney.

Our review of over 900 cases from this period revealed that buy-busts and sales observed by police accounted for nearly two-thirds of SFPD’s drug sale arrests. Yet, those methods yielded small amounts of narcotics and cash per arrest, and rarely led to the recovery of a weapon.

We looked at the weights listed in police reports – which includes packaging – for the cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine recovered in drug arrests.

A sugar packet weighs 2-4 grams. The data shows that in two-thirds of buy-bust cases, police recovered less than 4 grams of narcotics, and in almost half of the cases, they recovered less than 2 grams.

One M&M weighs about 1 gram. The median weights of narcotics recovered was 1-3 grams in buy-busts and 5-9 grams in observed sales.

The median amount of cash recovered was $81 in buy-busts and $142 in observed sales.

Weapons – anything from a pocketknife to a firearm – were found in fewer than 1% of cases.

The data supports what the late Public Defender Jeff Adachi referred to as “the war on crumbs” over a decade ago.

Not only have these operations failed to impact drug use or sales, they have disproportionately impacted communities of color. A staggering 93% of the people arrested in buy-busts were black or brown. Although 74% of the people arrested in buy-busts were Latinx, they currently only make up 7% of the innovative L.E.A.D. program, where police can divert users and low-level sellers before they are charged in court. We all know that affluent white people sell and use drugs in private and in public – even in Dolores Park, near where I live with my wife and young child – without consequence.

So where do we go from here? Are we going to pursue the same ineffective and costly war on drugs, or do we have the political courage in San Francisco to innovate?

First, we must honestly acknowledge who is selling drugs and examine the outcomes of SFPD’s historic response. Such data collection is crucial to advancing comprehensive and long-lasting interventions and solutions.

Second, we must employ modern, evidence-based approaches, which recognize that arresting and incarcerating low-level drug sellers does not decrease the supply nor the demand. In fact, it leads to worse health outcomes and a more dangerous market.

Third, we must invest in community-based substance treatment, emergency detox, trauma-informed mental health and intensive case management. Steering users to treatment could additionally de-incentivize drug sales and shrink the market. We must focus on housing, job opportunities, and diversion programs to offer our most vulnerable community members more meaningful prospects.

The wave of new leaders in San Francisco – which includes the Public Defender, the District Attorney, the Sheriff, the Mayor and members of the Board of Supervisors – can seize upon this moment to emerge from the failed war on drugs, significantly reduce the jail population, and boldly take innovative approaches in order to affect transformative change for the health and safety of our City.