San Francisco Wants to Open Safe Place to Comedown Off Drugs to Fight Overdose Epidemic
The city saw three times as many deaths from drug overdoses as COVID in 2020 — now it’s time to get proactive.
Published on April 15, 2021

San Francisco has been faced with an epidemic of dire proportions — on top of the COVID crisis. The City by the Bay saw three times as many people die from drug overdoses as the coronavirus in 2020 — a total of two fatalities a day.

On Wednesday, Mayor London Breed announced the city would move forward with a plan that many hope will help the dire problem; a 30-bed (20 while social distancing measures are being employed) drug sobering center, where people will be able to spend up to 10 hours of a potentially-treacherous high under the care of health professionals. 

The center would be one of the first of its kind in the country. It is slated to be located in the South of Market neighborhood and would take a similar harm reduction strategy as the city’s alcohol sobering center, which has been in operation since 2003. A smaller drug sobering center was opened early last year in the Tenderloin neighborhood, but had to be closed when the COVID crisis kicked off. 

Most of the people who have died from overdoses in San Francisco last year were using fentanyl, a synthetic drug estimated to be 20 times more powerful than heroin. The second deadliest substance was meth, followed by cocaine, and then heroin. 27 percent of the people who died were homeless. 

The city’s harm reduction workers say that sheltering in place has led to a higher overdose fatality rate, as drug users are more likely to be getting high alone. That theory checks out when you take a look at national overdose death rates, which hit a record high in 2020, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

San Francisco’s overdose numbers could be even higher if it weren’t for efforts like the Drug Overdose Prevention and Education [DOPE] Project, a program funded by the city that oversees overdose response. The DOPE Project estimates that some 2,155 potential overdoses were averted by the administration of Narcan — more reason for providing users with safe places to take their drugs and somewhere to go after taking them. 

The proposed drug sobering center would welcome users of any substance, but staff would be specially trained to handle individuals experiencing methamphetamine-induced psychosis. Currently, the city’s Crisis Response Team has little options in such situations besides bringing people to SF’s overcrowded public hospital emergency rooms. The center would also feature social workers located on-site, ready to link drug users with ongoing addiction treatment services. 

Costs to get the center off the ground are estimated at $2 million, and $4.2 million to keep it open each year. The plan will now go to the city’s Board of Supervisors for approval. 

Advocates for the city’s harm reduction and mental health services say the need for the center is urgent, but that this current plan is hardly likely to stem the tide of overdose death on its own. 

“I’m glad that we’re going to move forward and get this done, although I’m sure we’re going to find that we need more than just one,” Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, co-chair of the city’s meth task force, told the San Francisco Chronicle.  

Caitlin Donohue
Caitlin Donohue is a Bay Area-raised, Mexico City-based cannabis writer and author of She Represents: 44 Women Who Are Changing Politics and the World. Her weekly show Crónica on Radio Nopal explores Mexican marijuana culture and politics in the prohibition era. Follow Caitlin on IG @byrdwatch.
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