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Candy sells faster than fentanyl in San Francisco’s open-air drug markets

A man holds money, and candy for sale in his hands.
Candy is one of the hottest items on sale at San Francisco's open-air drug markets. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

There’s a drug that’s selling faster than fentanyl in San Francisco: sugar. Duffel bags full of sweet treats are selling out in minutes at the city’s open-air drug markets.

On any given night, people lie strewn across the Tenderloin neighborhood’s sidewalks next to empty ice cream cartons, discarded candy wrappers and drained bottles of soda.

Vendors flood United Nation Plaza’s open-air drug market every night with heaving bags full of candy and chocolate. Within minutes, they’ve sold out—having made a fistful of cash. 

A crowd of people on the streets outside of a convenience store at night.
People congregate at an unofficial night market on the corner of Charles J. Brenham Place and McAllister Street in San Francisco on Thursday. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Sugar fiends, desperate for their next high, roam the crowd bartering for gummy worms and Cap’n Crunch cereal. 

“Soda, who’s got soda for sale?” one man frantically shouted on Thursday night.

Some vendors say they buy candy with food stamps and sell it for cash. Others admit they steal it, sometimes making an average of $40 to $50 in minutes. 

A nearby convenience store worker, who declined to be named for fear of his safety, said candy is his bestselling product, even if it’s more expensive than the stuff sold on the street.

One vendor was seen Monday night lugging around a wheelbarrow full of individually wrapped pink and red homemade cakes for sale.

A collection of items on a mat: clothing, bags, and packets, with a person seated at the edge.
Smucker’s Uncrustables are seen on sale among women's clothing at an illegal night market on McAllister Street on Thursday. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

“Some of this shit might get you higher than dope,” said a man who identified himself as Jay Dog and was selling Kit Kats for a buck. “The dope is garbage.”

Dog claimed to be a member of the Marin County Crips gang. He refused to give his legal name but said he once served 15 years in prison for armed robbery.

Fentanyl in San Francisco, though drastically cheaper than in other cities, is sometimes only 5% pure, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency.

But the sugar in candy bars is always potent. 

A man named Chris, who declined to give his last name because he doesn’t want people to think he’s a candy thief, said he’s hooked on Kinder Bueno.

Candy on display on a sidewalk.
Chris, 48, sells candy at an unofficial night market in San Francisco on Thursday. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Chris was selling Sour Strips for $2 a pop on Thursday night. He complained that too many vendors sell candy for cheaper than he does, making it difficult for him to make any real money. 

“They don’t value the risk they’re taking,” Chris said. “It isn’t fair.”

One man offered to trade a cable saw for a pack of Chris’s candy. Chris declined.

A woman later bartered with Chris to score a pack of strips for half price. He begrudgingly accepted. 

Chris isn’t new to the candy game, he said. After he first became homeless in 2008, he said he would dumpster dive behind the Union Square Ghiradelli store, finding entire cases of expired chocolate.

“I was living off that stuff,” Chris said. “Especially for people who do opiates, it really helps keep the edge off. It elevates the pleasure center of the brain.” 

A pile of discarded chewing gum packets and a beer can, with a scooter laying nearby on a concrete surface.
Gum and other candy for sale at an unofficial night market outside Arsicault Bakery on McAllister Street on Thursday night. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Studies have shown a high correlation between opioid use and sugar intake, leading some experts to believe that they activate similar functions in the brain. 

As the night markets have grown in notoriety, Mayor London Breed and Gov. Gavin Newsom cracked down on illegal activity around U.N. Plaza. Federal DEA agents, the California Highway Patrol and local police have descended on the area since June, eliciting both criticism and applause. The plaza’s new skate park has been lauded as a success in changing the daytime vibe. But at night, old habits prove hard to break in the area.

San Francisco police have arrested over 2,300 people under those efforts, and the Department of Public Works has also ramped up its enforcement of street vending. 

A person crouches on the side of the street as a police car drives by a group of people standing on the sidewalk.
A police car drives by people selling items at an unofficial night market on Charles J. Brenham Place on Thursday. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

“Even if we’re not doing drugs anymore, we’re still addicts,” said a man named Bill, who wouldn’t give his last name because he knew he was committing a crime. Bill sold $50 worth of candy bars in less than 10 minutes by The Standard’s count. “Drugs are just one of our vices,” he said.

David Sjostedt can be reached at