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Newsom Taps California Highway Patrol, National Guard to Fight San Francisco’s Fentanyl Crisis

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A black and white California High Patrol vehicle is parked near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. A gray car passes through the toll bridge.
A California Highway Patrol car stands guard at the Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza on Nov. 2, 2001, in San Francisco. Gov. Gavin Newsom is utilizing the CHP and the National Guard to fight the city's fentanyl crisis. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A new team of officers from the California Highway Patrol and the California National Guard will step in to train and assist San Francisco Police in disrupting fentanyl dealing and trafficking, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Friday.

The mobilization comes as overdose rates in the city have increased 41% across the first three months of this year (PDF) compared with the same time period in 2022 (PDF), when the city was operating a supervised consumption site. Trained staff at the facility reversed 333 overdoses in 11 months before the facility closed, according to city data.

“Those who traffic drugs, guns, and human beings are not welcome in our communities,” said Newsom in a press release. “That’s why we’re launching this operation. This is not about criminalizing people struggling with substance use — this is about taking down the prominent poison peddlers and their connected crime rings that prey on the most vulnerable, and harm our residents. While it’s true that San Francisco is safer than many cities its size, we cannot let rampant crime continue.”

A photo of a politician in a navy blue suit with navy and white tie, stands speaking from a podium with the U.S. and California state flags behind him.
Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on Friday, April 28, 2023, that a new team of officers from the California Highway Patrol and the California National Guard will step in to train and assist San Francisco police in disrupting fentanyl dealing and trafficking. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Starting May 1, CHP officers will help investigate opioid trafficking cases and train local police in identifying intoxicated drivers, city officials said on Friday. The effort will have a particular focus on the Tenderloin neighborhood, where the majority of overdose deaths have occurred this year.

Additional CHP units will also patrol hot spots for drug dealing in the city “as workload allows,” according to the press release about the plan. So far, 75 CHP officers have been stationed in the San Francisco area, CHP Commissioner Sean Duryee told reporters at a press conference on Friday. He said he expects that number to increase to 84 in the coming weeks.


Meanwhile, 14 members of the California National Guard (Cal Guard) will work remotely with SFPD on non-patrol operations such as improving administrative systems and responses to drug-related crime.

Since January, San Francisco police have made more than 300 arrests for possession with intent to sell and seized 150% more fentanyl in the first three months of 2023 compared to 2022, according to the mayor’s office. On Tuesday, District Attorney Brooke Jenkins announced multiple charges against a 23-year-old arrested for carrying 11 pounds of fentanyl, an opioid about 50 times more potent than heroin.

Fentanyl has been involved in the vast majority of recent overdose deaths in San Francisco, data from the Office of the Medical Examiner shows.

Officials on Friday did not state what the long-term plan for the intervention would entail, but seemed aware of how similar crackdown efforts in the neighborhood in the past and even more recently have not shown success at slowing down sales, public drug use or overdose deaths in the long run.

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“When we deploy large amounts of officers, the problem tends to go away while we are there,” said San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott. “The last thing we want to do is clean the streets up for a week, a month, then everyone goes back to what they were doing again.”

The California Department of Justice and the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, both of which have called for tougher enforcement around drug dealing as public scrutiny over the overdose crisis mounts, are also supportive of the plan.

“The fentanyl crisis is impacting our residents, workers, and businesses, and it requires all of us working together to disrupt the flow of drugs in San Francisco while also making sure we have treatment for those struggling with addiction,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed said in a press release.

“This will send a strong message to those who are perpetrating these crimes,” she later said at Friday’s press conference.

The proclamation Friday was reminiscent of Breed’s bold claim in 2021 that the city would crack down on the “bulls— that has destroyed our city,” which she said in announcing an emergency plan to address the drug and overdose crisis in the Tenderloin.

That effort brought together multiple city agencies to ramp up enforcement of dealing, clear sidewalks and offer new public health responses to drug use such as opening what became a supervised consumption site called the Tenderloin Center.

The facility closed at the end of 2022, a few months after Newsom vetoed legislation that would have allowed San Francisco, Los Angeles and Oakland to pilot safe consumption sites. Breed said the plan was only meant to be temporary and, on Friday, added the center “didn’t quite work out.”

A blue and yellow sign reads, "Tenderloin Linkage Center Entrance."
Residents wait in line to get into the Tenderloin Linkage Center (also known as the Tenderloin Center), a now-defunct safe consumption site in San Francisco, on Feb. 8, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

After the closing of the Tenderloin Center and the emergency plan’s winding down, overdose rates have again increased in 2023, data from the Office of the Medical Examiner shows.

Meanwhile, public safety advocates applauded the governor’s decision to increase law enforcement around the issue, at a time when the San Francisco Police Department is struggling to recruit and retain a full workforce.

“Just the mere presence of our officers we believe will help deter and disrupt criminal activity,” Duryee said.

Newsom said that his plan “will not seek to criminalize those struggling with substance use and instead focus on disrupting the supply fueling the fentanyl crisis by holding drug suppliers and traffickers accountable,” according to a press release on the plan.

But addiction experts and advocates for people who use drugs say the move could nonetheless have unintended consequences, and negatively affect people who struggle with addiction and lack access to housing, health care or other support systems.

“The outcome they want is to disturb the fentanyl supply. But usually these events are short-lived, and when they go away, the drug supply rebounds,” said Dan Ciccarone, professor and expert in addiction at UCSF. “When that happens, people die. People reduce their tolerance during the prohibition and go back to normal use when the supply rebounds and overdose rates shoot up.”

Reporters on Friday asked Breed whether she shared concerns from some community members that the federal support and stricter law enforcement approach could replicate some of the devastation of the war on drugs, which fueled overrepresentation of Black and Latino people imprisoned for drug-related crimes.

“I have more concerns about the number of people who are dying of drug overdoses and the families and people struggling in their neighborhoods,” Breed responded. “I want the streets to be safe … and part of that includes all of the great programs we are doing, but there has to be accountability attached to this.”


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