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SF Public Defender Responds to Newsom Opioid Task Force Announcement

Leaders ignore evidence in favor of failed War on Drugs tactics

SAN FRANCISCO — Today, Gov. Gavin Newsom, SF Mayor London Breed, SF District Attorney Brooke Jenkins and SFPD Chief Bill Scott announced the formation of a new law enforcement task force to investigate and prosecute opioid-linked deaths in the city. Mano Raju, elected public defender for San Francisco, issues the following statement in response: 

“We are deeply concerned that many San Franciscans have had their lives profoundly harmed by fentanyl overdoses, including many of our clients and their families. The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office is actively working to address this crisis through our End the Cycle program, whereby our social workers are connecting our clients to supportive services. However, the task force announced today is another step in the wrong direction toward the continued revival of the failed War on Drugs in SF. 

Since the opioid public health crisis began in our city about three years ago, law enforcement and city leaders have formed numerous task forces that have enacted War on Drugs tactics, and overdoses have only increased. In fact, San Francisco is on track to reach a record number of overdoses this year. Relying on police and prosecutions to arrest and cage our way out of a public health crisis remains in direct conflict with decades of social and scientific data that show that these tactics do not work. 

Threatening to charge people with murder is unfortunately likely to result in more overdoses, as people will be afraid to call for help. A report from Fair and Just Prosecution notes that such prosecutions ‘do not alleviate the risk of fatal overdoses; are ineffective as a deterrent to drug use, drug sales, and overdose deaths; can be legally problematic and consume significant resources; often target friends and family members; and worsen racial disparities in the system.’ The Drug Policy Alliance concluded that ‘drug-induced homicide prosecutions waste resources that could be spent on effective interventions.’

We need to invest in harm reduction methods including life-saving tools like Narcan and fentanyl testing strips; on-demand and low-barrier substance use and mental health treatment; stable housing; long-term education investments; and job training to heal our community. We urge leaders who are concerned by the rise in opioid overdoses to prioritize evidence-based public health strategies rather than throwing more public resources at a punitive approach that has failed time and time again.”