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What Drug Users in SF Think of the Police Crackdown on Possession
Sunday, August 07, 2022

What Drug Users in SF Think of the Police Crackdown on Possession

Akisha Rankin was smoking fentanyl off a piece of tinfoil near San Francisco’s Civic Center BART station earlier this month when two police officers approached and ticketed her for drug paraphernalia possession. 

“They just gave me the ticket,” Rankin said, adding that she had never before received such a citation and didn’t bother showing up to court because the officers seemed to be just sending a message more than anything else. “They don’t want us staying and doing drugs.” 

Rankin is one of an increasing number of people the police have cited for possessing a pipe or syringe amid a new crackdown that some characterize as mixed messaging across city agencies.

As of July 21, police have issued 120 standalone drug paraphernalia citations compared to just 34 in June and 10 in May. Chief Bill Scott told the police commission in early July that he was directing officers to cite people for drug paraphernalia.

The push is designed to help clean up the blatant drug use on city streets following a mandate by city leaders, including Mayor London Breed, who have called for a crackdown on a state of lawlessness in San Francisco. But drug users say the tactic of targeting them for petty possession is not new and amounts to harassment. And advocates say the practice will only worsen the already deadly overdose crisis by pushing users into less public areas. 

The police effort is also running up against other city agencies that are working in the opposite direction. Despite bold talk on cleaning up city streets, even newly sworn-in District Attorney Brooke Jenkins ordered a spate of cases to be dismissed after a prosecutor erroneously filed drug paraphernalia charges. The DA’s office said it’s currently not a policy to charge people for simple possession. 

Kyle Adams, an Oregon resident who was recently cited for paraphernalia and drug possession in the city, said the police are citing people to frighten them into leaving San Francisco. 

“What they’re doing is scaring people,” said Adams, who grew up mostly in Oakland. 

Adams was riding his BMX bike near Market and 9th streets more than a month ago, he said, when three police officers stopped him. They cited him for having a pipe and a bag of crystal meth, took the pipe, drugs and $180, and told him in no uncertain terms not to come back to San Francisco. 

About a month later, Adams said, he called the number on the citation to see if he had to show up to court and was told no ticket had been issued. As for the officers’ warnings, it didn’t stop him and three others from returning to the city this week. 

“We came to party,” he said. “It’s free and open and relaxed.” 

Such citations, other drug users told The Standard, are arbitrary and not new to the police force. 

The Polk Street Annex of the San Francisco Superior Court houses trials for those cited for drug and paraphernalia possession in San Francisco, California, on Thursday, July 28, 2022. | Don Feria for the Standard

Caelan Spence, a 24-year-old Richmond resident who is going through the drug court diversion program, said this new police push is one more sign of the city’s mixed messaging around enforcement. 

Spence was cited about a year ago for smoking meth near the library, he said. In that case, sheriff’s deputies took him to jail. In a similar case he was taken to jail for having a pipe and a bag with drug residue. But when he was detained on yet another occasion, Spence said, he had methamphetamine worth thousands of dollars on him and police let him go. 

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A number of other drug court defendants told The Standard that police are trying to send a message to users that open-air drug use will no longer be tolerated. But they also said that slaps on the wrist for possession and paraphernalia charges will do little to discourage them from coming to the city since other counties can be harsher in court. 

Raphael Sanchez, a 29-year-old drug user, was sitting a block from City Hall on Thursday as he recalled being cited for fentanyl paraphernalia in San Mateo County. He said he was given a year and a half probation, which is night and day compared to how he’s been treated by San Francisco law enforcement

“The contrast is that in SF you can do whatever you want,” Sanchez said. 

No matter the efficacy or rationale for citing people, drug treatment advocates argue, going after people for paraphernalia possession runs counter to the mission of many city-funded programs, and it could result in streets filled with more overdose victims. 

John Negrete, who leads the Glide Foundation’s harm-reduction efforts, including a program that hands out needles and pipes, said he is hearing about the increasing number of citations but most people aren’t being charged. 

“It’s a form of harassment,” Negrete said. “It discourages people to be out on the street.”

Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at [email protected].
  • Wait — THIS is your intended constituency? Street drug users? THESE are the people you think are most important in the city?

    There are something like 700,000 residents here and many of us have jobs and pay rent and don’t use fentanyl on the streets or support our drug habits by stealing every day from Walgreens. Maybe ask some of US what we think of street drug use. Or do we not count to you?

  • If the examples shown above are any indicator, possession of drugs bears no penalty so those who are stopped for possession should be cited. When some do not show up for their arraignment and let the citation go to warrant then it should be a matter of public record which may in the future hinder those in question from obtaining gainful employment, applying for public assistance, service in the military or other situations where an application is required.
    Being an adult involves taking personal responsibility for your actions good or bad. If you chose not to then you should expect to be denied the benefits and problems associated with adulthood (from personal experience).

  • In truth, I was a little hesitant about citing people for drug use/possession. But this article convinced me it is needed in San Francisco.

  • The drug users, in their own words, come to San Francisco because the city allows them to “do whatever [they] want.” Because of the lack of enforcement of laws and the lack of accountability for their actions. Calling it “harassment” to cite people for violating the law doesn’t hold much weight as an argument to me. Isn’t the point of laws to provide a shared understanding of what we will and will not accept as a society? To foster social cohesion? Ignoring laws doesn’t support a unified society. Yes, it is absolutely problematic that these citations are issued inconsistently and that the city overall has a “mixed message” to drug users (and by the way, to the rest of us, a constituency much larger than the open-air drug users). But it’s also important to note that harm reduction–a concept that has both supporters and detractors, evidence for and against–is not codified in the law. The advocates of harm reduction, if they believe their approach is truly right and beneficial to society, should do more to demonstrate to the voting public that their approach does work, and try to get it codified in the law. Encouraging non-enforcement is a mixed message in and of itself.

  • Do you have anymore information about this? I was there around the evening with my friends and we were so shocked. There were so many people there it was like a party, and we felt so unsafe for blocks. Had no idea stuff like that happened in the most central area in SF.

  • I support safe injection/smoking sites. Let people use in peace. Recommend treatment and make sure it’s readily available. People who want to use, will. Jail doesn’t work! That we know, for sure!

  • Giving soneone a ticket will “… help clean up the blatant drug use on city streets…”??? 🤣🤣🤣🤣 Our politicsl leaders sre either stupid or naive to think that the drug user will do anything but ignore the ticket and throw it away. The only ticket they should be giving is either one into rehab or one back to where they came from.

  • no kidding. if drug users who steal from us, and litter our streets with their needles, defecation, urine, fast food containers etc think they are being harassed, then police — please keep it up

  • “It’s a form of harassment,” Negrete said. “It discourages people to be out on the street.”

    Yep John that’s the point you misguided moron. Cheers to more citations and harsher consequences. San Francisco shouldn’t be seen by these individuals as a drug users Disney world.

  • Lock them up, force them into treatment, power hose the streets, deport the dealers, do whatever is necessary so there is no safe space for crack, fentanyl, and meth in our town. By their own admission, they won’t stop unless forced to. The time for tough love was 20 years ago. And if you really want to follow a European model, study what makes them work. Enforcement is not optional. It’s a cornerstone.

  • SF is dying. We need one heck of a lot more police harassment of junkies (and vagrants – often the same group) to take it back and clean it up!! What can be done?

    1. STOP SUBSIDIZING BUMS WITH TAX DOLLARS!! Stop stealing and giving away OUR money, and many of these bums will go back where they came from.

    2. ZERO open air drug use tolerance. Arrest the junkies, and make em spend time in jail. That will encourage at least some of them to GO BACK WHERE THEY CAME FROM.

    3. DO NOT EVER GIVE MONEY TO A BUM PANHANDLER. It only encourages them.

  • I think this article begs the question: Who cares what they think? If you are in possession of narcotics, you should be arrested and given the opportunity for drug diversion programs. Repeated offenses, send them to jail to dry out.

  • Great. Negrete whose job at Glide includes distributing drug paraphernalia says citing users is harassment. He’s right and the city should stop funding Glide and his job. The city is funding all these addicts who come from outside the city to “party” and turn our streets into toilets.

  • Being enablers of bad behavior and spending tax payer dollars to do it is just insanity. More harassment than less is the right answer. I don’t really care where these people go to do their drugs and overdose as long as I don’t have to pay to support their bad habits through social and emergency services.

    There is a ton of open covered space in the old shipyards that can have cages built to just shove these folks into to let them dry out and get them off of our streets. Then put them into mandatory drug rehabilitation so that they can become “contributing” citizens vs. what they are today which is a constant burden.

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