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Politics & Policy

Controversial plan to screen welfare recipients for drugs is backed by voters, poll says

A woman removes drugs from a baggie on the street.
Proposition F, which would tie welfare benefits to drug treatment for some, has proved contentious among San Francisco elected officials. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

San Francisco voters strongly support a ballot measure that would tie cash welfare benefits to drug screening for some recipients—a proposal that has proved highly divisive among the city’s elected officials. 

The ballot measure, Proposition F, would require single adults suspected of being addicted to illegal drugs to undergo screening and agree to some form of treatment in order to continue receiving benefits. According to a poll conducted last month, 66% of likely March voters support the measure—the highest of any ballot measure polled. 

“Voters are very concerned right now about crime and safety issues, the same with concern we’re seeing for open-air drug use and concerns about fentanyl addiction,” said Ruth Bernstein of EMC Research, which polled 500 likely voters in mid-November on their views of three measures slated for the March 2024 ballot. 

Proposition F, the drug-screening measure introduced by Mayor London Breed in September, drew swift condemnation from some members of the Board of Supervisors, who called it punitive and counterproductive. 

Some of those concerns were echoed at a Dec. 13 endorsement meeting of the San Francisco Democratic Party, which recommended a “no” vote on the measure. 

Members of the party board—formally called the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC)—voiced a range of concerns about the proposal, saying it would add bureaucratic hoops for people already living on the margins and questioning its effectiveness in successfully treating people with substance use disorder. 

“I’m disturbed by any proposition that would take money away—out of the pockets of people who are most vulnerable, who are struggling, who are already marginally housed,” said party chair and former social worker Honey Mahogany.  “I think that would cause more people to end up on our streets, worsen our homelessness crisis, and it will not get people into treatment.”

Honey Mahogany crosses the street wearing a white coat and carrying a cup of coffee.
Honey Mahogany, who chairs the Democratic County Central Committee, believes that Proposition F would hurt people who are struggling. | Kori Suzuki for The Standard

Apart from Proposition F, the committee recommended “no” positions on two other ballot measures backed by Breed. One, called Proposition E, would allow police to use more surveillance technology, such as security cameras and drones, and streamline reporting procedures for use-of-force incidents. The committee also recommended a “no” vote on Proposition C, which would waive the city’s transfer tax for office-to-housing conversions. 

The committee endorsed a “yes” vote on the other four measures, which include a policy statement in support of middle-school algebra, an anti-corruption measure that would reform gifting rules, a $300 million affordable housing bond and a heavily debated police staffing proposal.

The votes highlight a broader power struggle within the local Democratic Party between existing leadership and those who feel the party’s brand has been damaged by San Francisco’s high-profile troubles with property crime, drug addiction and homelessness. 

Nancy Tung, a DCCC member and one of few moderate-leaning members of the committee, pointed to the endorsements as a sign that the local party leadership “is very much out of touch with San Francisco voters.” 

A group of moderate Democrats, holding signs, smile against a brick wall at a launch party for a moderate slate.
Nancy Tung and entrepreneur Michael Lai, pictured in the foreground at a campaign event, are running for Democratic County Central Committee as part of the Democrats for Change slate. | Source: Mike Ege for The Standard

Tung is part of a slate of candidates calling itself Democrats for Change that aims to take control of the local party and its endorsements. The March 2024 central committee race is getting outsized focus from moderate groups who see it as a prelude to a consequential November general election that will include votes for mayor and six Board of Supervisors seats.

Progressives are running an opposing slate, called the Labor and Working Families Slate, which emphasizes a San Francisco Democratic Party “rooted in the values and voices of everyday people.” Anchored by labor leader Sal Rosselli, DCCC vice chair Peter Gallotta, Supervisor Connie Chan and other officials, the group asserts on its website that City Hall favors “the billionaire class, real estate and corporate interests over everyday San Franciscans.”

Cedric Akbar, a drug treatment advocate who’s running on the Democrats for Change slate, said he supports Proposition F and likened the city’s current county welfare system, whereby people can qualify for up to $687 a month in cash benefits, to enabling drug use. He speculated that the DCCC’s votes were more about “voting against the mayor” than making progress on the city’s issues. 

“It’s not about forcing someone into treatment,” Akbar said of Proposition F. “It doesn’t have to mean residential treatment. It might be medical treatment. It might be contingency management.”

EMC’s polling also showed that 57% of voters backed Proposition E, Breed’s police surveillance initiative, while 58% supported Proposition C, her proposal to waive the transfer tax for office conversions. The poll, which was commissioned by the campaign committees supporting Propositions E and F, did not ask respondents about the remaining four ballot measures.

In a text message, Mahogany pointed to the DCCC’s endorsement of Proposition B, which would create a police hiring mandate as long as a new tax can pay for it. That ballot measure, placed on the ballot by the Board of Supervisors, went through a bruising committee process that made the mandate contingent on a yet unidentified future funding source. 

“The San Francisco Democratic Party voted in support of police staffing, but opposed a proposition that would remove police oversight as well as a proposition that would lead to more people being thrown out of housing and onto the streets,” Mahogany wrote. “You can care about public safety and also believe in accountability. Those who say otherwise are being dishonest and deliberately misleading voters.”  

Joe Arellano, the spokesperson for Breed’s three ballot measures, accused the current DCCC of being focused on “fomenting out-of-touch class warfare, rather than supporting policies that address San Francisco’s most pressing issues.” 

“We are confident the voters are smart enough to make decisions based on the merits of each measure, not because of the endorsement of out-of-touch activists masquerading as local party leaders,” Arellano said.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include additional detail about the poll.