Pubdate: Wed, 03 Dec 2014
Source: SF Weekly (CA)
Copyright: 2014 Village Voice Media
Author: Chris Roberts

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 

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 

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.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom