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Politics & Policy

A ‘fentanyl state of emergency’? Mayoral candidates argue over plan

People congregate near the intersection of 7th and Market in downtown San Francisco on Oct. 16, 2023.
People congregate near the intersection of Seventh and Market in downtown San Francisco. The intersection is known for its open-air drug trade, where fentanyl and other narcotics are bought and sold. | Source: Loren Elliott for The Standard

Mayoral candidate Daniel Lurie is going on the offensive this week against incumbent London Breed, calling for a “state of emergency” to combat the city’s drug crisis and blasting his opponent as ineffective on the issue. But the mayor immediately fired back, calling Lurie’s proposals “embarrassing.”

Lurie released details Wednesday for a so-called “fentanyl state of emergency” he promised to declare if elected mayor, a move he said could unlock more resources to fight the epidemic of deadly overdoses.

More than 800 people died of drug overdoses in San Francisco in 2023, though not all of those involved fentanyl. 

In previous emergency declarations, the city was able to waive certain rules around contracting, zoning and planning codes, allowing for rapid construction of facilities aimed at helping drug users. In his call for an emergency declaration Wednesday, Lurie did not go into specifics on how resources would be used but referred back to the drug and mental health plan he detailed in February.

The nonprofit leader and Levi’s heir also lambasted Breed’s previous attempt at a state of emergency focused on the Tenderloin in December 2021 during heightened criticism over the conditions of San Francisco’s streets during the pandemic. 

A man in a suit speaking to a smiling woman in a red jacket, both indoors, with signs and a recycling symbol nearby.
Daniel Lurie departs the city's Department of Elections after filing paperwork officially announcing his candidacy for mayor in September. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

Breed’s announcement then was aimed at cutting bureaucratic red tape and compelling drug users into treatment. The effort was centered around the now-defunct Tenderloin Center, which was supposed to be aimed at getting drug users into treatment but was criticized for effectively becoming a “safe consumption site” where people used illicit substances out in the open. It was closed in December 2022. 

On Wednesday, Lurie claimed the mayor’s efforts focused on the Tenderloin had failed and called for a plan that would be “coordinated, accountable and ensure[s] follow through.” The candidate said he would also create a position in his office to oversee the response.

But Breed’s campaign questioned the feasibility of Lurie’s proposal, arguing that the city wouldn’t have a legal leg to stand on to declare a local emergency like it did during the pandemic. The city also declared an emergency in 2022 during an outbreak of the monkeypox virus.  

“Daniel Lurie’s embarrassing proposals continue to demonstrate his inexperience and lack of basic understanding for how government and policy work,” said Joe Arellano, Breed’s campaign spokesperson. “His solution to addressing the city’s fentanyl crisis is a flimsy local declaration that might not even be legal and [is] hiring one person.” 

The scrum over how to respond to the fentanyl crisis comes as the mayor has become increasingly skeptical about so-called harm reduction strategies, an approach that aims to combat the negative effects of drug use through public health interventions such as distributing clean needles and overdose reversal medications.

In late February, Breed offered her harshest criticism yet of the strategy, saying, “Harm reduction, from my perspective, is not reducing the harm. It is making things worse.” Advocates of harm reduction have pushed back, saying the approach is in line with public health best practices and that the mayor is using the issue for political means as concerns around homelessness, public drug use and crime continue to be central issues for voters. 

A woman speaks at a podium marked "CITY HALL" with onlookers behind her, some wearing shirts with "UNITE" and "SAVE" visible.
Mayor London Breed speaks outside of City Hall during the "March to Prevent Fentanyl Deaths" in San Francisco on Feb. 26. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

The March 5 election offered the latest litmus test on the shifting public opinion about drug use after voters approved Prop. F. The ballot measure requires some welfare recipients suspected of using illicit substances to go through screening and treatment—or risk losing their cash subsidy.

Gina McDonald, a member of Mothers Against Drug Addiction and Deaths, said that whoever clinches the mayor’s seat needs to ensure that the city’s vast bureaucracy is actually working together.

“It has to be an all hands on deck between law enforcement, public health and the Mayor’s Office,” McDonald said in an interview. “And I feel like they’re all not working in tandem. It feels like everyone is throwing spaghetti against the wall.”