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Drug Policy Experts and Treatment Providers Urge Evidence-based Treatment and Harm Reduction Strategies Needed to Address SF Public Health Crisis

Criminalizing the supply does nothing to abate the demand. Instead of bringing back the harmful War on Drugs, public health experts discuss how San Francisco should invest in wraparound care

SAN FRANCISCO  — Today, in a virtual press briefing, drug policy and community-based practitioners urged San Francisco city leaders to invest in evidence-based, harm reduction-focused strategies to address the city’s public health crisis.

“San Francisco has earned a reputation for being forward-thinking and innovative, and we think it’s really important to not move backward when it comes to the issue of how to tackle substance use disorders,” said elected San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju, whose office co-hosted the briefing, along with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, Drug Policy Alliance, Code Tenderloin and HealthRIGHT 360. “This is why we wanted to come together today to provide an evidence-based perspective on what actually will work to address the opioid crisis in San Francisco. To be clear, as the historic War on Drugs has clearly demonstrated, criminalizing the supply has done nothing to reduce the demand. Today’s conversation is about how to reduce the demand and how to treat substance use disorders in a humane and effective way.”

“From an empirical perspective, law enforcement interventions do not actually dismantle drug trafficking organizations,” said Leo Beletsky, Associate Professor at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. “By attacking supply, drug markets mutate and often produce more violence and more potent drugs.” 

Vitka Eisen, CEO of HealthRIGHT 360, a provider of medical and substance use disorder treatment in San Francisco, recommends the city create a broad network that helps keep people who use drugs connected and engaged in care. In her view, that would include low-barrier wellness hubs and drop-in centers, high-quality voluntary treatment that includes medication for addiction treatment and other evidence-based interventions, safe and stable transitional housing and permanent supportive housing. 

“Treatment is effective,” Eisen said. “It is not effective at the same time and in the same way for everybody. Rather than forcing people into treatment, we should follow the experts, and not just one person’s experience, whose recovery journey is relevant only to them.”

Del Seymour, a longtime advocate for unhoused individuals and founder of workforce development nonprofit Code Tenderloin, spoke about his personal experience with the last War on Drugs and his assessment of the current situation. 

“I’m a veteran of the War on Drugs in the 80s and 90s in San Francisco in the Tenderloin. I spent 18 years heavily addicted to crack cocaine. I have 14 felony arrests on my record,” which Seymour said almost prevented him from buying his first home decades later. “Let’s have a collaborative strategy. I’m tired of going to fentanyl funerals.”

Norma Palacios, policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance, noted that “criminalizing drug sellers does nothing to end overdoses.” Palacios explained, “Oftentimes the people who are arrested for selling drugs are selling to sustain their own drug use,” Palacios said. “In order to improve community safety, we need to minimize contact with law enforcement and direct people to community-based and culturally competent treatment instead of jails. San Francisco needs to divest from harmful Drug War policies.”

San Francisco’s moves toward increased policing and criminalization “are going to make the overdose crisis worse,” said Laura Thomas, Director of HIV & Harm Reduction Policy with SF AIDS Foundation. “We know what does address and prevent overdose fatalities. And that’s where the people in the harm reduction world have the tools, as opposed to the criminal legal system. We need to disinvest in what doesn’t work, and that’s the criminal legal system.”

Additional speakers at today’s event included Dr. Randolph Holmes, medical director of the Los Angeles Centers for Alcohol and Drug Abuse; Kara Simon Casey, Supervisor of Ambassadors, Code Tenderloin; and Maurice Byrd, LMFT, Director of Training, the Harm Reduction Therapy Center. A recording of today’s press briefing can be viewed here. at. And a factsheet with speaker bios, contact info and links to relevant studies is available here.


Watch the press briefing on YouTube.


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