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Watch: San Franciscans react to snarky anti-fentanyl ads attempting to shame City Hall

A subversive and heavily bankrolled ad campaign meant to shame City Hall officials into budgeting more money to confront San Francisco’s fentanyl drug crisis rolled out onto the streets Tuesday.

The ad campaign—titled “That’s Fentalife!”—is the brainchild of TogetherSF Action, a political group in the city that intends to drop as much as a half-million dollars over the next six weeks to sway Mayor London Breed and city supervisors as they hammer out the city’s budget ahead of the next fiscal year starting July 1. 

The slogan and coloring of the ads have a pop aesthetic contrasted with aggressive language about people dying on city streets from overdoses and City Hall officials prioritizing drug dealers over children. The ads include a QR code that links to a list of the organization’s budget demands.

An area known as 'Fentanyl Alley' on Myrtle Street in San Francisco on May 15, 2023, features multiple ads by the group TogetherSF Action to draw attention to the city's drug crisis. | Jesse Rogala/The Standard

“For a long time, we’ve all been afraid to talk about what's really happening, because we don’t want to place blame or upset people who are doing really good work, or there’s always a risk of making the city look bad,” said Kanishka Cheng, co-founder and CEO of TogetherSF Action. “I think those fears are things we can't be afraid of anymore, given the urgent and desperate nature of the crisis.”

The ads were designed to inspire outrage and action. But it’s too early to know if they will succeed or backfire. By mid-day Tuesday, some of the ads already appeared to have been defaced. 

Until last fall, San Francisco police deprioritized drug possession charges as health officials emphasized harm reduction policies to deal with the drug crisis on its streets. In 2021, the city signed off on a $6.5 million budget amendment to continue giving people clean needles and smoking supplies to curb the spread of disease while also flooding the streets with Narcan, an overdose reversal medication.

The goal of these efforts is to reduce negative health outcomes that often accompany prolonged drug use.

However, TogetherSF Action and other critics of this approach contend that the city has essentially legalized open-air drug markets through a lack of police enforcement while neglecting to build abstinence-focused programs that could rescue people from addiction. Drug overdoses claimed the lives of 1,908 people from 2020 through 2022, and more than 200 people have died from drug overdoses this year.

The immediate reaction to “That’s Fentalife!” ads on San Francisco streets and at City Hall seemed to hover between confusion and passive acceptance to cringe and eye rolls.

A street vendor and another person gather in front of a new ad for the 'That's Fentalife!' campaign on Myrtle Street in San Francisco on May 15, 2023. | Jesse Rogala/The Standard

Multiple ads were placed along a wall on Myrtle Street in the Tenderloin neighborhood—a location known to locals as “Fentanyl Alley”—and one of the displays reads, “Drug dealers now have more rights than our kids.” 

A few people who were hanging out nearby said they supported the ads while others thought it was an advertisement for Narcan. A man who was passing and refused to give his name said he feels the ad campaign is making fun of the drug crisis.

“I know it’s trying to help, but it's making light of the situation,” he said.

Another man, who gave his name as Lyle N., said the ads will at least start a conversation. 

“Kids are going to learn how to spell fentanyl now,” he said. “Some people might find that offensive, but it’s in the eye of the beholder.”

An ad featuring a young girl in the 'That's Fentalife!' campaign suggests drug dealers' rights are being prioritized over children. The ad is one of many that went up around the city on May 15, 2023. | Jesse Rogala/The Standard

Connie Chan, the city supervisor who chairs San Francisco’s budget committee, dismissed the ads as a stunt that takes away from the important work while the city is dealing with a $743.5 million deficit.

“These ads do not deliver real results on what we're looking for: tackling the fentanyl crisis,” Chan said. “They only stir up fear and anxiety.”

Supervisor Dean Preston called the ad campaign “gross” in a tweet Tuesday evening.

Mayor London Breed, whose policies have received support from TogetherSF Action in the past, was not immune from criticism in the ads, which cite all City Hall officials as the problem.

“We don't really make a distinction,” Cheng said, “because there isn’t consensus around the truth of the issue and what the solutions are.”

San Francisco Mayor London Breed (right) and Chief of Police Bill Scott (left) at a press conference on Oct. 5, 2022. | Don Feria for The Standard

TogetherSF Action informed Breed of the ads before releasing them, said Cheng, who previously worked in the Mayor's Office. 

Jeff Cretan, a spokesperson for the mayor, said some of the group’s requests, which include more policing of street drug dealing and funding for abstinence-based programs, could be part of her revised budget expected in two weeks.

“​​The underlying asks are generally in line with what the mayor has already been pursuing to increase police staffing, disrupt open-air drug markets, add more treatment beds, and increase street outreach,” Cretan said in a text message. “These will be a key focus in her upcoming budget.”

Del Seymour, who is known to many as the unofficial mayor of the Tenderloin, was listed as a supporter of the ad campaign in a TogetherSF Action press release. Seymour told The Standard that he first met with the organization Monday and many of the group’s ads don’t sit right with him.

“I agreed to be part of the team because I wanted to be like a mole,” Seymour said. “You can’t change something if you’re not sitting at the table.”

In particular, Seymour disagrees with the organization’s stance that a stronger police presence is needed in the Tenderloin. The city is now working with California Highway Patrol and the National Guard to disrupt drug trafficking operations in Downtown.

“I’ve confronted them about that,” Seymour said. “I’m not with that.”

A group gathers in front of a 'That's Fentalife' ad in San Francisco on May 15, 2023. | Jesse Rogala/The Standard

Cheng said her group and others are simply fed up with the way San Francisco is “normalizing” the drug crisis, and all city officials—including Breed—should be on notice.

“I think this effort is designed to draw attention to everybody in City Hall, to tell them that this is the most important thing in San Francisco right now,” Cheng said. “I think voters will remember if they don’t solve this problem when they're on the ballot next. We'll certainly remind people.”

Editor’s note: Michael Moritz, a general partner at Sequoia Capital who finances The Standard, has provided funding to the 501c3 nonprofit TogetherSF and its political arm, TogetherSF Action. He is not involved in editorial decisions at The Standard.

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