Skip to main content
Politics & Policy

Why is fentanyl drastically cheaper in San Francisco than in LA, NYC and Philly?

A billboard with the Golden Gate Bridge, a critical message about fentanyl, foregrounded by a blurry officer's profile.
Mothers Against Drug Deaths, a group of mothers with children affected by fentanyl, paid for a billboard in Union Square shaming the city for its “dirt cheap” fentanyl in 2022. | Source: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The price of fentanyl in San Francisco is drastically lower than in other major U.S. cities with thriving drug markets.

The Standard compared the prices of fentanyl in San Francisco to those in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York and Sacramento using data from the Drug Enforcement Agency. In San Francisco, an ounce of fentanyl is sold for hundreds of dollars cheaper on average.

In Los Angeles, a hub for drug trafficking organizations due to its proximity to the Mexican border, fentanyl dealers seek between $650 and $1,000 for an ounce of the drug, which is then usually broken down into smaller amounts for sale on the street.

In Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, home of one of the country’s most visible drug markets, an ounce of fentanyl costs $1,500 to $2,000. Grams of the drug are sold in Kensington for as low as $25, and even smaller quantities called “bags” fetch prices of $8 to $9. 

In New York City, an average kilogram of fentanyl costs $26,000, while grams are priced around $40, a law enforcement source told The Standard. Kilos in San Francisco generally cost $14,000. New York officials did not provide a price per ounce.

people hang out near a wall
Small quantities of fentanyl can be found on the streets of the Kensington neighborhood in Philadelphia for as low as $8. | Source: AnadoluTayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

In Sacramento, which receives many of its drugs from San Francisco, the average price for an ounce of less pure fentanyl ranges from $350 to $450. More pure fentanyl in Sacramento is priced between $600 and $900.

In San Francisco, fentanyl is sold by the ounce in two categories depending on its potency.

Lower-strength fentanyl, dubbed “regular” on San Francisco’s streets, is sold for $150 to $200 per ounce, according to Casey Rettig, a local DEA spokesperson. An ounce can be broken into 28 grams for street-level sales—at which point the price may fluctuate. The San Francisco Police Department said it didn’t have fentanyl per gram pricing. 

Stronger fentanyl, known on the city’s streets as “clean” or “iso,” costs between $500 and $550 per ounce, Rettig said. 

Illegal drugs sold in bulk, such as a kilogram (or 1,000 grams), are sold at a cheaper price per gram than when they reach the consumer on the street. As drugs are bought wholesale in kilos and sold on to lower-level dealers as ounces (or 28 grams), the purity level usually drops as other substances are added to the drugs to maximize profits. The end result often means that drug users are buying something sold as a “gram” that contains only a fraction of the pure substance they are seeking.

Five San Francisco fentanyl users told The Standard they’d purchased small amounts of the drug for as little as $3. Others said they’re able to obtain fentanyl for free by reaching agreements with drug dealers to hold their product. The practice, known as “holding,” protects dealers from being caught with large amounts of drugs.

Some policymakers argue that the drug’s low price is a driving factor in San Francisco’s crisis that took over 800 lives last year while devastating the Tenderloin and SoMa neighborhoods.

“People come from other places across California to get fentanyl in San Francisco,” state Assemblymember Matt Haney told The Standard. “If we’re going to stop this epidemic, we need to make it a lot harder.” 

Nevertheless, most San Francisco fentanyl users The Standard spoke to said that raising the price would do little to stop them from using the drug. They argue that making fentanyl more expensive could lead people with addiction to commit more crimes out of desperation.

“Let me see one person sleep on this sidewalk sober,” said Benjamin Longmore, a 38-year-old fentanyl user in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood.

A man in a hooded jacket sits against a wall, looking at the camera, another person's hand in the foreground.
Benjamin Longmore said he remembers fentanyl being more expensive and also more potent in San Francisco just a few years ago. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

Lydia Bransten of the Gubbio Project harm reduction nonprofit pushed back on the assertion that drug users are flocking to San Francisco for its cheap fentanyl. 

“If you use fentanyl, you have to use it every three hours in order to stay well, and that’d be really difficult for someone to move across the country,” Bransten said.

Bransten said law enforcement should be involved in addressing the drug crisis. However, she argued the city should instead create spaces for people to safely use drugs out of public view rather than arrest them.

“The general public is concerned about the state of the streets and feeling safe,” Bransten said. “The reality is, 806 people died from this crisis last year, and they were all people who use drugs. Not people who were walking by them on the street.”

Why Is Fentanyl Cheaper in San Francisco?

Brian Clark, special agent in charge of San Francisco’s DEA, said he believes the price of fentanyl is cheaper in San Francisco because of soft drug policies. He argued the drug market in San Francisco’s Tenderloin moves more freely than even the streets of Skid Row in Los Angeles.

“It’s all about greed, and it’s all about profits,” Clark said. “The difference, I’d say, is the open-air market that’s been established here.” 

The price of fentanyl is so cheap in San Francisco, Rettig said, that drug dealers have been found coming from Humboldt County, Sacramento and Santa Rosa to purchase the drug. 

Longmore, who first used the drug locally in 2018, said he believes the price of fentanyl is cheaper in San Francisco because it’s highly diluted with other substances. A few years ago, the drug was more expensive than it is today, he said, and it was purer. 

“It was real fentanyl, not this cut bull crap,” Longmore said. “A 10th of a gram would get four or five people high twice.”

These days, Longmore explained, it’s more difficult to find fentanyl that isn’t “stepped on,” a slang term that means cut with other substances.

A person stands near tents and a dog on an urban sidewalk with graffiti in the background.
Haley Harris Hampton, who lives on Treasure Island, stands near a homeless encampment in the Tenderloin neighborhood. Hampton said she comes to the neighborhood to use her nursing skills to help people use drugs like fentanyl more safely. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

Haley Harris Hampton, a fentanyl user who lives on Treasure Island, said she’s met many people who moved to San Francisco because they heard the fentanyl was cheaper.

People become trapped in the city, she said, addicted to cheap fentanyl cut with mystery substances.

“Most of it’s not even fentanyl,” Hampton said. “If you get real fetty, it’s going to be expensive like everywhere else.” 

Rettig of the DEA said “regular” fentanyl in San Francisco ranges from 5% to 10% purity, while “clean” fentanyl ranges from 15% to 25% purity and is sometimes much higher.

By comparison, street-level fentanyl in Kensington ranges on average from 12% to 15% purity, according to the Philadelphia Drug Enforcement Agency’s supervisory special agent, Patrick Trainor. 

Kilos of fentanyl can sometimes arrive in Kensington from Los Angeles with purity levels as high as 80%, Trainor said. 

The average price of a kilo is the same in San Francisco as it is in Los Angeles. Los Angeles DEA officials wouldn’t provide purity data.

Keith Humphreys, who worked on drug policy for the Obama administration, said purity levels and prices may fluctuate due to law enforcement busts, conflicts between cartels and advancements in underground drug manufacturing. 

“To the extent that dealers know what they’re selling, and they don’t always know, you could expect a price premium for higher potency,” Humphreys said. “It depends on how potency-sensitive the users are.”

Humphreys said he was surprised an ounce of the drug is cheaper in San Francisco than in Los Angeles due to its proximity to Mexico, where many illegal drugs are transported from. He speculated that the saturation of the drug market in San Francisco could be driving down prices of the deadly opioid.

“If you’re moving large amounts, you can charge less,” Humphreys said. “When there’s more enforcement, you have to compensate dealers more.” 

Between May 2023 and January 2024, law enforcement officials cracked down on the sale and visible use of drugs in the city, making 663 arrests for drug sales and seizing 145 pounds of fentanyl.

Some drug users told The Standard the enforcement measures have made it more difficult to obtain fentanyl, particularly during the daytime. Some dealers, they say, have stopped selling smaller quantities of the drug. 

A person is lighting a handheld device that emits smoke, with a blue tarp backdrop.
A drug user smokes fentanyl on LA's Skid Row, where fentanyl is more expensive than in San Francisco. | Source: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

However, Rettig said the DEA hasn’t seen an increase in the street price of the drug since the crackdown began. In fact, the price of three grams of fentanyl in San Francisco dropped from $100 to $60 between the summer of 2022 and 2023, she said. 

Meanwhile, the city experienced a record-breaking 806 overdose deaths last year, according to preliminary data from the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office.

A 29-year-old homeless man named Matt, who declined to give a last name for fear of arrest, said he moved to San Francisco from the East Coast 10 years ago when he was already struggling with addiction. However, he said, he didn’t move to the Bay Area for its cheap drugs. Instead, he explained, he came to the city because of the weather, afraid of freezing to death in cities like Philadelphia or New York.

“I was going to live on the street one way or another, and I knew the weather would be better here,” he said.

Matt said he usually purchases higher-quality fentanyl for around $40 per gram. He argued that more enforcement measures, and higher drug prices, could cause more chaos for the city.

“My logic is that drug use should be accepted, but it shouldn’t be tolerated to be a nuisance to society,” he said. “If it was more expensive, people would have a harder time getting by and would steal more.”

David Sjostedt can be reached at