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What drug users in SF think of the police crackdown on possession

Akisha Rankin, center, and others sit on the sidewalk in the Tenderloin in San Francisco, California, on Thursday, July 28, 2022. Ms. Rankin was cited for possession by the San Francisco Police Department. | Don Feria for The Standard

Akisha Rankin was smoking fentanyl off a piece of tinfoil near San Francisco’s Civic Center BART station earlier this month when two police officers approached and ticketed her for drug paraphernalia possession. 

“They just gave me the ticket,” Rankin said, adding that she had never before received such a citation and didn’t bother showing up to court because the officers seemed to be just sending a message more than anything else. “They don’t want us staying and doing drugs.” 

Rankin is one of an increasing number of people the police have cited for possessing a pipe or syringe amid a new crackdown that some characterize as mixed messaging across city agencies.

As of July 21, police have issued 120 standalone drug paraphernalia citations compared to just 34 in June and 10 in May. Chief Bill Scott told the police commission in early July that he was directing officers to cite people for drug paraphernalia.

The push is designed to help clean up the blatant drug use on city streets following a mandate by city leaders, including Mayor London Breed, who have called for a crackdown on a state of lawlessness in San Francisco. But drug users say the tactic of targeting them for petty possession is not new and amounts to harassment. And advocates say the practice will only worsen the already deadly overdose crisis by pushing users into less public areas. 

The police effort is also running up against other city agencies that are working in the opposite direction. Despite bold talk on cleaning up city streets, even newly sworn-in District Attorney Brooke Jenkins ordered a spate of cases to be dismissed after a prosecutor erroneously filed drug paraphernalia charges. The DA’s office said it’s currently not a policy to charge people for simple possession. 

Kyle Adams, an Oregon resident who was recently cited for paraphernalia and drug possession in the city, said the police are citing people to frighten them into leaving San Francisco. 

“What they’re doing is scaring people,” said Adams, who grew up mostly in Oakland. 

Adams was riding his BMX bike near Market and 9th streets more than a month ago, he said, when three police officers stopped him. They cited him for having a pipe and a bag of crystal meth, took the pipe, drugs and $180, and told him in no uncertain terms not to come back to San Francisco. 

About a month later, Adams said, he called the number on the citation to see if he had to show up to court and was told no ticket had been issued. As for the officers’ warnings, it didn’t stop him and three others from returning to the city this week. 

“We came to party,” he said. “It’s free and open and relaxed.” 

Such citations, other drug users told The Standard, are arbitrary and not new to the police force. 

The Polk Street Annex of the San Francisco Superior Court houses trials for those cited for drug and paraphernalia possession in San Francisco, California, on Thursday, July 28, 2022. | Don Feria for the Standard

Caelan Spence, a 24-year-old Richmond resident who is going through the drug court diversion program, said this new police push is one more sign of the city’s mixed messaging around enforcement. 

Spence was cited about a year ago for smoking meth near the library, he said. In that case, sheriff’s deputies took him to jail. In a similar case he was taken to jail for having a pipe and a bag with drug residue. But when he was detained on yet another occasion, Spence said, he had methamphetamine worth thousands of dollars on him and police let him go. 

A number of other drug court defendants told The Standard that police are trying to send a message to users that open-air drug use will no longer be tolerated. But they also said that slaps on the wrist for possession and paraphernalia charges will do little to discourage them from coming to the city since other counties can be harsher in court. 

Raphael Sanchez, a 29-year-old drug user, was sitting a block from City Hall on Thursday as he recalled being cited for fentanyl paraphernalia in San Mateo County. He said he was given a year and a half probation, which is night and day compared to how he’s been treated by San Francisco law enforcement

“The contrast is that in SF you can do whatever you want,” Sanchez said. 

No matter the efficacy or rationale for citing people, drug treatment advocates argue, going after people for paraphernalia possession runs counter to the mission of many city-funded programs, and it could result in streets filled with more overdose victims. 

John Negrete, who leads the Glide Foundation’s harm-reduction efforts, including a program that hands out needles and pipes, said he is hearing about the increasing number of citations but most people aren’t being charged. 

“It’s a form of harassment,” Negrete said. “It discourages people to be out on the street.”