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Politics & Policy

San Francisco voters to decide on plan to screen welfare recipients for drugs

A woman wearing a dark-colored blouse and jacket holds a microphone and addresses an unseen audience.
London Breed, mayor of San Francisco, speaks to the crowd outside John’s Grill in Downtown San Francisco on Oct. 4, 2023. | Source: Jana Ašenbrennerová for The Standard

Following a chilly reception at the Board of Supervisors, San Francisco Mayor London Breed said Tuesday that she is placing her proposal to screen welfare recipients for drug addiction on the March 2024 ballot. 

First announced last month, Breed’s proposal would affect people enrolled in the city’s General Assistance program, considered a safety net that provides up to $687 per month to indigent adults. Recipients who are suspected of a substance use disorder would be required to undergo a drug addiction screening and agree to participate in a treatment program in order to continue receiving benefits. 

“This ballot measure will allow San Franciscans to add another tool to our efforts to address the drug use that is creating serious public safety hazards and fueling an overdose crisis on our streets,” said Mayor London Breed in a statement. 

The ballot measure would require a simple majority to pass. 

Breed’s proposal drew sharp blowback from several members of the Board of Supervisors, who called Breed’s proposal punitive and detrimental to those struggling with addiction. 

“So, in other words, we’re going to hit you over the head with more punishment,” Supervisor Hillary Ronen said during a charged discussion at the Sept. 26 Board of Supervisors meeting. Pointing to an apparent shortage of drug treatment options, other policymakers worried about the feasibility of the plan.

Under the mayor’s proposal, treatment options could include residential treatment, medical detox, medication-assisted treatment, outpatient treatment or other options, depending on the needs of the client. 

Clients who do not engage in the addiction assessment will no longer receive cash assistance, Breed’s office said in a statement. Those who are discontinued from the assistance will receive housing assistance for 30 days and may be considered for an extension of housing assistance if necessary to prevent eviction. 

According to the San Francisco Human Services Agency, which runs the General Assistance program, 20% of recipients self-disclosed a disabling addiction between 2018 and 2020. The General Assistance program administered $30.3 million in fiscal year 2022, and there are currently about 5,200 people enrolled in the program. The General Assistance program is required under state law and funded locally. 

In a statement, Human Services Agency Executive Director Trent Rhorer said that the goal of Breed’s drug screening initiative is to “reduce drug-related addiction and overdose deaths amongst those who come to our Agency for help. 

“We want to look at all potential solutions and do everything we can to support clients who have substance use disorders by motivating them to get the help they desperately need, which we hope will lead to them addressing their substance use and achieving stability and well-being in their lives,” he said.