When the newly appointed District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey shuffled into the crowded courtyard on Monday at Delancey Street Foundation, an abstinence-based rehabilitation nonprofit in the South Beach neighborhood, he entered one of the city’s most polarizing debates around two approaches to drug addiction: harm reduction and abstinence.
Mayor London Breed’s appointment of Dorsey, who formerly served as a spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Department, sparked outrage amongst some anti-police activists who have sought to prevent the police from being part of the city’s response to homelessness and drug addiction. As District 6 Supervisor, Dorsey will preside over the South of Market neighborhood, which has seen an increase in drug activity and associated crime over the last few months.
Citywide, deaths from overdoses topped 640 last year as fentanyl has taken hold of the city’s drug supply, accounting for 74% of overdose fatalities. City emergency personnel have reversed 982 overdoses between Dec. 13 and May 1, according to the city’s dashboard.
During his first meeting as a sitting supervisor on Tuesday, Dorsey announced that he would hold a hearing to identify barriers that stand in the way of people entering drug treatment programs.
“Let’s identify points of friction,” Dorsey told The Standard after the meeting. “If you're struggling with alcohol or drug addiction in San Francisco, and you call 311 and you say, ‘I need help.’ What are you going to hear?”
Dorsey said that he hopes to strike a balance between allowing people to enter rehabilitation at their own pace while holding them accountable for crimes they may commit because of their addiction. He emphasized that if people are arrested while suffering from addiction, they need to be met with treatment options.
“I have sat in too many meetings and listened to too many people tell their stories in recovery,” Dorsey said. “Too many people have said ‘I knew I hit bottom when’ and they proceeded to talk about some involvement in the criminal justice system.”
During his appointment speech, Dorsey, who himself has struggled with alcohol and drug addiction, spoke on his experience graduating from drug rehab on three separate occasions among years of recovery. Most recently, he said, he briefly relapsed during the pandemic.
He said the balance he strikes will rely on understanding and treating people depending on where they’re at on the spectrum of drug addiction and mental illness. This includes involving the police when necessary, but also implementing low-barrier programs such as safe consumption sites that allow people to seek treatment on their own accord.
Dorsey also said he will support conservatorship, but only for people who are suffering from grave mental disabilities.
He placed his policies into two metaphorical buckets: the “right to recovery” and the “sober new deal.”
In the right to recovery bucket, he said, he will seek policies that streamline people’s journey from drug addiction to rehab. This includes solving for a shortage of drug counselors with the people who are currently on the streets using drugs.
“The best, most influential, most meaningful counselors are the people who've been through it themselves,” Dorsey said.
The sober new deal will focus on creating opportunities to support people early in their recovery by presenting job and educational opportunities.
Dorsey finds himself with support from both sides of the treatment spectrum. At his appointment, ardent advocates of both abstinence and harm reduction were present.
Gary McCoy, a policy director for the nonprofit HealthRight360 and a champion of harm reduction strategies, stood on one side of Dorsey. On the other side was Tom Wolf, who has been one of the most outspoken advocates for abstinence in San Francisco in recent years.
McCoy and Wolf, who have dealt their fair share of jabs at one another on social media, each told The Standard that they are looking forward to a balanced approach to drug policy from the new supervisor.
“Right when I parked I got out and saw Tom Wolf,” McCoy said. “I think [Dorsey] is uniquely qualified given that he has lived experience and he’s also worked on the policy side…But a lot of people will be keeping an eye on him.”
Dorsey, a gay man living with HIV, said that his experiences during the AIDS epidemic and as someone who struggled with addiction have helped shape his understanding of harm reduction.
“When we're talking about [drugs] that are this dangerous, getting people off the street and into an environment where it's supervised is saving lives,” Dorsey said. “Let's meet people where they are, but let’s make sure we're not leaving them there.”
David Sjostedt can be reached at email@example.com