Press releases

Criminalizing people who use drugs will increase overdose deaths

San Francisco AIDS Foundation condemns recently-implemented city strategies prioritizing “War on Drugs” tactics over public health.


SAN FRANCISCO, June 13, 2023–San Francisco AIDS Foundation condemns new city policies to arrest and jail people using substances, attempt to force people into drug treatment, and “crack down” on public drug dealing, and urges Mayor London Breed and city officials to re-invest in evidence-based public health interventions to end the overdose crisis plaguing our city. 

“We are outraged by the inhumane strategy taken up by the city and spearheaded by Mayor Breed to address the drug crisis in San Francisco,” said Tyler TerMeer, PhD, CEO of San Francisco AIDS Foundation. “Using law enforcement to address a public health crisis goes against all best evidence and will only cause significant harm to our communities–especially to Black and brown communities. Although we applaud the inclusion of wellness hubs in the city budget, the currently implemented criminalization tactics will undermine the success of wellness hubs before they have even begun.”    

San Francisco city leaders shared plans for an emergency response against people using and dealing drugs in SoMa and the Tenderloin last week, deploying a unit of 130 deputies to arrest people dealing and using substances in public. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that 58 arrests have already been made under health and safety codes related to public intoxication, drug possession, and drug paraphernalia. More than half of people arrested were Black, Indigenous, and people of color.   

“I am very concerned about the recent measures taken by the city to jail people using substances in public places and to force them into treatment,” said Ro Giuliano, senior director of health services for people who use drugs. “Forced treatment simply does not work. And we do not believe people taken to jail are receiving the appropriate health interventions they may want or need to address withdrawal symptoms or manage their substance use. Jailing people for drug use will only cause harm to those individuals–since they will be at a much higher risk of fatal overdose upon release–and does nothing to address the root causes of some of the problems the city wishes to address.” 

San Francisco AIDS Foundation temporarily closed its small Center last week after services were disrupted by law enforcement. In previous weeks, mobile harm reduction service provision was disrupted by police officers questioning participants seeking safer use and health supplies. Per agreements forged decades ago with the police chief and city officials, and updated in 2021, the San Francisco Police Department supports syringe access and harm reduction services, and instructs officers not to interfere with the provision of services. Distributing safer injection and safer use supplies is legal under state law and funded and supported by the City and County of San Francisco as a proven way to reduce HIV and other infections such as hepatitis C, reduce overdose, and engage people in a continuum of substance use and health care. 

“The mayor claims that ‘compassion is killing people,’ but these new criminalization tactics will lead directly to more overdose deaths and worse health outcomes,” said Laura Thomas, senior director of HIV and harm reduction policy. “We have decades of research showing that criminalization pushes drug use underground and increases risk of fatal overdose. A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that each drug arrest doubled fatal overdoses in the vicinity. If the city is serious about ending the overdose crisis, it needs to immediately stop these failed drug war tactics. We know what works to improve the health and safety of our neighborhoods–establishing safe consumption and overdose prevention sites, increasing the accessibility and availability of drug treatment services, and ensuring that people have the supportive services they need.” 

San Francisco AIDS Foundation acknowledges the complex position we hold as an organization that values partnerships with the city–and is in part funded by the city–yet is grounded in service and advocacy for our communities. We remain steadfast in our commitment to upholding our values as an organization and speaking out for the people we serve. San Francisco AIDS Foundation supports the Treatment on Demand Coalition’s statement and list of priorities to address ending overdose and improving substance use treatment in San Francisco, which can be read here.

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