San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins embraces a supporter from Mothers Against Drug Deaths at a City Hall rally to raise awareness for fentanyl deaths in San Francisco on Aug. 21. (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez/KQED)
San Franciscans rallied against fentanyl Sunday at an event marking National Fentanyl Prevention and Awareness Day — but even as they stood at City Hall in unity over a broader shared goal, opinions split over a bill that would allow the city to create safe injection sites for drug users.
The rally was hosted by Mothers Against Drug Deaths, an advocacy group that favors stricter penalties for drug users; group members argue that supervised injection sites will worsen addictions. But local officials are mostly in favor of the sites, arguing that pilot programs in the country and a growing body of science show they prevent deaths among drug users.
Notably, even District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, who has billed herself as tough on crime, has said she’s in favor of such spaces.
Safe injection sites, which are controversial because they allow drugs to be consumed on-site under the supervision of health care workers, may soon be a reality in California. Senate Bill 57, authored by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, would allow a pilot program for safe injection sites to move forward in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles. Several elected leaders who took part in Sunday’s event said they support the bill.
Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to announce his decision either to sign or veto the bill on Monday, timing that the rally’s organizers used to deliver their message against it.
San Franciscan Tanya Tilghman told the crowd her son became addicted to drugs after seeking prescription drug treatment for his attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Their family’s life soon spiraled into chaos, she said, including an incident where her son held himself hostage in North Beach until more than 15 SFPD officers managed to talk him down.
Her experience sharpened her opposition to SB 57.
“I am a mother, and I do kind of have an idea. Maybe we shouldn’t be passing SB 57 and funding it. Maybe we should take the money and put it into residential treatment programs and rehabilitation,” said Tilghman, one of several speakers at the rally who spoke out against the bill. She said putting government resources toward such sites was akin to “saying that it is OK to use illegal drugs.”
City officials who spoke at the rally — including Supervisors Rafael Mandelman and Matt Dorsey in addition to Jenkins — said they support the group's larger aim: to prevent drug deaths. But all three also told KQED they back supervised injection sites.
Mandelman, for his part, said speaking at a rally held by Mothers Against Drug Deaths was natural for him as he pushes for more ways to ease suffering on San Francisco streets — even if he does believe in safe injection sites.
“We don't have to agree on everything,” he said, “but we're real strong allies around a whole bunch of stuff.”
Walking a fine political line
Jenkins might be in a more sensitive political position as she runs to keep the seat to which she was appointed following the recall of her predecessor, Chesa Boudin. Perhaps in recognition of that, she walked a particularly fine line at the rally.
“Drug sales is not a victimless crime. And I think today really tells the story of how many people have been victims of this illegal conduct,” Jenkins told the crowd of about 50 people. “Yes, we are in a war against fentanyl. We are in a war against making sure that our children don't get what looks like candy in their hands, but that will kill them.”
But when asked if she supports SB 57, Jenkins told KQED in an interview that she does support safe injection sites.
“I agree with safe injection sites, safe consumption sites. We need to be saving lives. We're in a different universe right now. You know, 10 years ago, we didn't have as lethal a drug as fentanyl on the market,” she said.
Appearing at a rally championed by a group so staunchly against safe consumption sites may be a natural choice for a district attorney who has branded herself as a bastion of law and order, and depends on supporters who value that punishment-focused message. In public statements made against former DA Chesa Boudin, Jenkins criticized his policies as sending a message that San Francisco wouldn’t prosecute crime.
Yet she also needs the support of politicos like Mayor London Breed, who has been a longtime champion of legalizing safe injection sites, and Sen. Wiener, who authored the safe injection sites bill and also endorsed Jenkins. Breed appointed Jenkins as district attorney after Boudin was recalled in June.
“We are working to open meth sobering centers, safe injection sites and managed alcohol facilities so we can stop walking by addiction spilling out on our streets, and start treating it like the health care issue that it is,” Breed said at the steps of City Hall in 2020.
Jason McDaniel, associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University, said navigating those differing viewpoints may test Jenkins’ relationships with major supporters.
“It is perhaps risky to create the possibility of daylight between her view and important supporters,” McDaniel said. “I think it is a recognition that this is a difficult issue.”
Keneda Gibson of Oakland, who spoke at the San Francisco rally Sunday, said her younger brother fell into drug addiction after being treated for gunshot wounds with opiates. The medical system failed him, she said, and he found himself in San Francisco seeking drugs.
“He had gone to seek heroin in the streets,” she said.
At one point, she said, someone mistakenly informed her family that he had died. They searched in San Francisco and Oakland looking for John Doe's who fit his description. Her family mourned him. It was only later that someone reached out and said they had found him alive. But his quality of life and his drug addiction were still daunting, she said, and sent her family into a depression.
When asked if she supported SB 57, Gibson said, “I think that Governor Newsom is absolutely insane for even considering such an idea.”
Gibson hopes California studies the use of psychedelics to aid those suffering from addiction. (Studying the broader benefits of psychedelics is another effort by Sen. Wiener, in the form of Senate Bill 519.)
Safe consumption sites have long been controversial because they allow drugs to be consumed on-site.
Yet because safe consumption sites are usually staffed with medical professionals and social workers — people who can connect drug users to services and administer lifesaving treatments if someone overdoses — the sites have been hailed by proponents for saving lives and for allowing opportunities for drug users to end the cycle of addiction. Two such sites opened in New York City last year to much fanfare, and more than 100 sites exist around the world. San Francisco has considered the use of safe consumption sites for close to a decade.
Ellen Grantz, a co-founder of Mothers Against Drug Deaths, told KQED she believes SB 57 is “premature at best.” The group would prefer the state focus on committing more resources to preventing the epidemic of drug use, instead.
“The reality is that there are people who are trying to get clean. They actually have appointments with treatment intake, but they're being turned away from their appointment because there isn't enough staff,” Grantz said. “So before doing something else around helping people to use a safe consumption site, we want these treatment issues to be addressed.”
Two years later, Jenkins appeared on those same steps with a group that decries the use of safe injection sites. The day before they met at City Hall’s steps, Grantz of Mothers Against Drug Deaths praised Jenkins for agreeing to appear at their event.
“We're super excited to have her, also talking about what her role is in helping to address the fentanyl situation and the drug overdose situation,” Grantz said.
Annelise Finney contributed to this report.
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