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Recovering Heroin Addict Says San Francisco Is Failing Its Drug Users

Recovering Heroin Addict Says San Francisco Is Failing Its Drug Users

That first bottle of pills was supposed to last Thomas Wolf a month, but he finished it in ten days. Wolf—then a city employee, husband and father of two—underwent foot surgery in 2015. The narcotics prescribed by his doctor, 10mg pills of oxycodone, did more than ease the pain. 

“I felt this euphoria,” Wolf said. “Not only was the pain gone, but all my problems were gone, too.”

Wolf’s addiction spiraled. He stopped paying the bills, instead spending hundreds of dollars a day on opioids purchased illegally from “Pill Hill” in the Tenderloin. Eventually, short on cash and desperate for a fix, Wolf made the switch to heroin. 

“I’d heard you could purchase a dime of heroin, which is enough to get you plenty high, for ten bucks,” he said.

Thomas Wolf during a walkaround of the Tenderloin. | Sophie Bearman for Here/Say Media

Shortly after, Wolf’s wife gave him an ultimatum: go to rehab or leave the house. Not yet ready to get clean, Wolf walked out on his family. He spent the next six months living on the streets of San Francisco.

Now sober, Wolf is an outspoken advocate for treatment and recovery. He credits jail time with saving his life. The sixth time Wolf was arrested, he was held for almost three months—long enough for him to get clean and select a six-month rehab program.

San Francisco has long focused on harm reduction—making drug use safe for users. But Wolf says City Hall has the equation backward. 

“The city needs to make it harder to get high and easier to get treatment,” he said. “Right now, it’s the opposite.” 

Wolf has heroin track marks across his hands, arms and legs. | Sophie Bearman for Here/Say Media

While homeless, Wolf recalls being approached with a drug kit—a baggy containing items like syringes, tourniquets and cotton balls—for safe drug use. “For us users on the street, it was like ‘Bingo!’” he said. But Wolf says he was never once approached about treatment programs. 

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Wolf also advocates for stricter penalties for fentanyl drug dealers—fentanyl being the drug responsible for the most accidental overdoses in San Francisco, according to a preliminary data report by the city’s chief medical examiner. He’s a proponent of conservatorship, too, which allows the state to compel certain individuals who can’t help themselves into mandatory treatment. San Francisco adopted a pilot program to expand court-ordered mental health treatment last year, but as of November 2020, not one person had been considered for the program

“There is a subset of people on the street that require intervention,” said Wolf. “They just do. I required intervention. If I hadn’t gotten in trouble with the law, would I still be out there on the street or dead? Yeah.”

Meanwhile, San Francisco’s drug crisis is worsening. In the first 11 months of 2020, there were 636 deaths from overdoses, up from 441 deaths in 2019 and 259 deaths in 2018. 

“It’s out of control,” said Wolf.

  • Harm Reduction is a compassionate approach to supporting people who use drugs. Studies have for years shown that people are more prone to enter treatment after engaging with harm reduction strategies because they have agency in their treatment and do not feel as judged as they do in abstinence based programs. Providing someone clean syringes does not make people use drugs, but it does help them use safer. It is realy sad to me that someone who used to use drugs cannot find that compassion and recognize that not everyone will have the same road to recovery he did. He entered his chaotic drug use from a very priviledged place – a white male, with a family and a job. I find this to be very tone deaf.

    • He didn’t say that giving clean needles out encouraged drug use. He said, “ “For us users on the street, it was like ‘Bingo!’” he said. But Wolf says he was never once approached about treatment programs. ” and Thats the problem right there, the lack of treatment options. There aren’t enough mental health/drug treatment options in the SF Bay Area. Especially, for those who are homeless or of low socioeconomic status. I read another article that followed a young 24 year old man, addicted to heroin around SF. He was hospitalized MULTIPLE times due to his drug overdoses/skin abscesses. EVERYTIME he was admitted, he asked to go to drug treatment. And EVERYTIME they told him, there are no beds available except for one time. That ONE time the Social worker gave him a slip with the address to the drug treatment place, said they are holding a bed for him. He was discharged, showed up to the facility, and they told him, sorry, we just gave your bed up because you showed up late, but come back tomorrow and check if we have a bed available. He never returned, and several months later, he was beaten to death and was placed on life support, parents ended up pulling the plug. It was a horrible story, with a very sad reality of our mental health crisis in this country. There are lots of people like that young man that wanted help, but we’re turned away due to the lack of resources available. Our priorities are messed up in this country….

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