A coalition of mothers is making the case that San Francisco is just as famous for its “dirt-cheap fentanyl” as its beautiful landmarks, and is looking to undercut a recent push to lure more tourists to the city’s downtown core.
The group, which calls itself Mothers Against Drug Deaths, hopes to take its message international, unveiling on Monday the first in a series of billboards that aim to dissuade tourists from visiting San Francisco until the city’s drug overdose crisis is under control. Their message intentionally lands in opposition to Mayor London Breed’s recent focus on attracting international tourists to the city.
“We shouldn’t be calling tourists to the city until we solve the problems we have here,” said Mothers Against Drug Deaths co-founder Jacqui Berlinn. “If you live in the city, you know that fentanyl is already as famous as these landmarks.”
The billboard debuted on Monday in Union Square—a popular tourist hub that Breed has publicly sought to make safe and appealing to visitors. The text reads: "Famous the world over for our beauty, brains and now, dirt-cheap fentanyl" and calls for an end to the city's open-air drug markets.
The billboard cost the group $25,000 and was paid for by three mothers as well as anonymous donors, according to Berlinn.
Berlinn’s son, Corey Sylvester, has lived on the streets addicted to opioids for more than ten years. She started protesting in the Tenderloin neighborhood back in May 2021, decrying that the city refused to arrest or detain her son long enough for him to regain sobriety.
Berlinn said that the group may start buying billboards in each of the European cities that Breed recently traveled to. Breed traveled to London, Paris, Brussels and Frankfurt in the latter half of March with the goal of boosting international flights to San Francisco International Airport and promoting a positive image of the city in the European press.
The recovery of tourism in San Francisco has lagged behind other major cities, in large part due to a lack of foreign travelers, who spend more in the city on average than domestic travelers. And the SF Travel Association issued a statement Monday in response to the group’s campaign, asking for an opportunity to collaborate on solutions that don’t impact businesses.
“The passionate campaign being launched today by MADD, although impactful, is not the solution as it will only hurt local small businesses and our hospitality workers who just now are beginning to crawl out of the economic disaster caused by COVID,” the statement said. “We respectfully ask that MADD join with us in pushing for solutions while supporting our tourism industry workers.”
Mothers Against Drug Dealing is critical of the city’s reliance on harm reduction methods, alleging that a lack of accountability for drug dealers and easy access to drugs are to blame for the city’s drug crisis. In February, members of the group protested in front of the Linkage Center, a service and respite facility that opened under Breed’s emergency declaration, for allowing people to use drugs openly on the facility’s premises.
“Our group was thrilled by the state of emergency; we thought things were going to change,” said Gina McDonald, whose daughter recently entered rehab for the fourth time after years of using fentanyl on San Francisco’s streets. “But then Breed ended the emergency and went off to Europe.”
In the first two months of the year, 98 people died of an overdose in San Francisco. Last year 645 people fatally overdosed in the city.
Andy Lynch, a spokesperson for Breed, said that she is aware that more needs to be done to break up open-air drug dealing in the city.
Lynch pointed to the more than 200 recent hires in the Department of Public Health, as well as the recent deployment of 20 additional officers to the Tenderloin–home to the city’s most notorious open air drug market–as ongoing efforts by the city to diminish the supply and demand for narcotics.
David Sjostedt can be reached at [email protected]