The Tenderloin Center, June 2022

Last week, in the final board meeting of 2022, an intriguing consortium of seven supervisors signed on to Hillary Ronen’s legislation calling for expedited “wellness hubs” — a more aesthetically pleasing way of saying “supervised drug use sites.” This supermajority includes both Ahsha Safaí and, most intriguing of all, Matt Dorsey.

Mayor London Breed, who saw fit to log in to Microsoft Teams to talk to the Board of Supervisors, rather than amble across the hall, expressed support for safe-use sites. She always has. The problems, she said, are the “serious legal issues that have not been addressed for city-operated or city-funded sites.” 

Ay, there’s the rub: Operating such a site, in the eyes of federal law, is no different than a city-sponsored crackhouse; the legal code undergirding this matter is even unsubtly called “The Crack House Statute.” 

But here’s another rub: We did that. At the Tenderloin Center. For 11 months, until Dec. 4. In full view of all the theater patrons queuing up for “Moulin Rouge!,” and in full knowledge of all the denizens of City Hall who could’ve stopped it if they saw fit. And, what’s more, city officials didn’t just acknowledge what was going on verbally, they wrote it down in official memos

Apparently, nobody listened to the City Attorney. Or, you know, saw “The Wire.

The statute of limitations for violating The Crack House Statute is five years. Meaning San Francisco is on the hook until on or about Dec. 4, 2027, regardless of what we do moving forward. 

An attendee greets guests at the Tenderloin Center, June, 2022.

But here’s yet another rub: The Crack House Statute has been on the books for a while — since 1986. That’s a long time ago; that’s the same year Metallica released “Master of Puppets.” So why, in only the past couple of months, have multiple nonprofits collaborating with the Department of Public Health to open supervised drug use sites complained that the mayor’s office hastily intervened to derail the process?

On Dec. 10, the Gubbio Project’s Lydia Brantsen told the Chronicle’s Heather Knight that the mayor’s office had abruptly pulled the plug on a planned safe consumption site at St. John the Evangelist church in the Mission.  

And, last week, Mission Local talked to a second nonprofit that said the same thing happened to it. That nonprofit has now decided to go on the record: It’s the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, and it had been gearing up to run a supervised consumption site in SoMa. 

Mayoral spokesman Jeff Cretan told us that the city is going to move forward on safe-consumption sites — “when we get legal clarity from the Department of Justice.” The legal test case for this, United States v. Safehouse, has featured a Godot-like series of delays. After a year of foot-dragging, the DOJ is due to show its hand on Jan. 9; based upon the cards it plays, San Francisco may get that legal clarity. Or it may not. 

Less clear is the about-face local nonprofits say they experienced due to the mayor’s intervention. Cretan said there may have been confusion about when the supervised consumption sites were actually slated to open, and noted the umpteenth federal delay in the Safehouse case. The mayor’s office has bristled at the notion this is a political calculation, just as the governor’s office has bristled at the notion that Gavin Newsom’s refusal to greenlight safe-consumption sites was due to trepidation over what Ron DeSantis would say about California coddling junkies. 

The nonprofits Mission Local spoke to, incidentally, weren’t confused. At all.  

This is not going to remain a “Rashomon” situation for long. Ronen is pushing to fast-track a January hearing, and all of these questions are going to be asked, in public, by our elected leaders, some of whom are ostensible mayoral allies.

Ubiquitous needles. Photo from October, 2012.

The question of just what the hell to do about San Francisco’s supervised (and unsupervised) drug use is a seismic-level collision of politics and law. And, complicating matters, both the politics and law are on the federal, state and local levels. 

Let’s start with the law part. Locally, even though eight supervisors are calling for the establishment of “wellness hubs” and setting aside millions to fund them, that and a few bucks will buy them a cup of coffee. The term “veto-proof majority” is not wholly relevant here, because the mayor is not bound to expend the funds underlying this legislation, no matter how many supes voted for it. This is a scenario that has come up time and again, most recently in 2020, when the mayor blew off legislation regarding shelter-in-place hotels approved by all 11 supes.

On the federal level, could the Department of Justice unload on San Francisco for running a safe consumption site — and, as Breed fears, deprive the city of millions of dollars and even send city employees to federal prison? Yes. But could they do that already? Also yes. And could they do that regarding consumption sites — of marijuana

You’re damn right they could. 

“Marijuana is still a Schedule 1 substance under federal law,” says Kellen Russoniello, a staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance. “Even in states where it is legalized, it remains federally illegal. The federal government could try to make the case to apply the Crack House Statute to cannabis, if it’s consumed on-site.” 

That’s the case with plenty of cannabis sites in San Francisco, sites that are subjected to complex city permitting and planning processes, and have to pass muster with the neighborhood, hire local kids, etc. Since this is a city-sanctioned process, yes, it’s conceivable that a malign Department of Justice could attempt to rain legal hellfire on the city as well. 

Should San Francisco, in a panic, dismantle any government ties to cannabis and shutter its cannabis sites? Not hardly. Rather, those positing worst-case scenarios of what a future troglodyte Attorney General might do to San Francisco regarding safe-consumption sites should possibly reconsider what that “worst-case scenario” might actually entail, and how realistic it actually is. 

Could San Francisco open up a supervised drug use site tomorrow, if it did so using private funding and private land, like New York City is doing and Rhode Island is planning to do? Yes, it could. That has the City Attorney’s blessing. But, as you’d guess, this is a tough fundraising lift. And, Russoniello notes, the feds could still swoop in and arrest everyone. They’d just be sending nonprofit workers to prison, instead of city workers.  

And San Francisco, remember, is still potentially in the soup until December, 2027, because of the Tenderloin Center. If we’re really talking worst-case scenario, a truly vindictive, weaponized DOJ would see no logical reason to be less punitive when prosecuting the city that serves as an avatar for liberal misrule merely because it ceased breaking the law after overtly flouting it for 11 months.

“We are being too cute by half,” says Ronen, “by pretending we haven’t already opened these things.” 

The inside of the Mission Cannabis Club lounge has booths to sit at. Photo by Annika Hom, July 8, 2021.

The Board of Supervisors cannot make the mayor spend money she doesn’t want to spend. 

But it can try. So, what comes next may be, in the words of Supervisor Aaron Peskin, “legislative guerrilla warfare.” 

“One starts these things by reasoning, and then one moves on to begging and pleading and if that doesn’t work, and if the board has the political will, then it can spill over the outside of that political issue. It can encompass and get tangled up in a web of other issues ranging from holding up mayoral appointments to refusing to appropriate funds for other mayoral priorities.” 

That’s certainly one way things could unfold. But everyone ostensibly wants the same thing here. Next month, in a belated Christmas miracle, we might instead see productive conversations. 

Free and open government discussions about doing federally illegal things are difficult. That’s a given. But San Francisco is in a difficult place. 

“I understand the concerns in a crazytown Republican administration, where they’d be going after Nancy Pelosi’s city,” explained Supervisor Matt Dorsey when asked about the possibilities of federal retribution. “But now? I don’t get the gun-shyness.” 

When Dorsey was running for office, he’d introduce himself to homeless people using drugs on the street. “I’d tell them, ‘I’m your supervisor, but I’m also a recovering addict. If you ever want to go to your meeting, give me a call.’ And they’d appreciate it. But they’re not ready yet.”

Dorsey is a big proponent of the abstinence-based programs that are working for him. But, he notes, these programs only work for the living. Safe-consumption sites, he says, keep people living long enough to contemplate the need for change. 

“There is real urgency to pursue a harm-reduction approach that can save lives, but also provide an interim step toward the promise of real recovery,” he says. “There just has to be a legal path toward doing this.” 

Or, Dorsey intimates, any path. He notes that, in the 1990s, then-Mayor Frank Jordan defied Republican state Attorney General Dan Lungren’s demands to nix San Francisco’s needle-exchange program. Jordan said he’d go to jail before curtailing a life-saving initiative. 

Jordan did not go to jail. The program continues. 

San Francisco, next month, will have frank discussions about what it needs. And what it’s willing to risk to get it. 

“We have to have these conversations,” Dorsey says. “This is not new. But, in many ways, it is unprecedented.” 

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. I surely didn’t want the safe injection site at St John’s. I live right across the street and feel this will bring more crime to an already sketchy area. The last thing we need is more dope fiends hanging around!

  2. The mentioning of cannabis here is only to muddy the waters. The issue here to focus on is hard drugs like fentanyl and others helping create our street zombie crisis. Enabling and encouraging the use of these is destroying the city I and I would support monetarily finning agencies harming our deteriorating city and prosecuting all staff enablers to the fullest extent of the law.

  3. As the needle exchange program’s being mentioned here: A few years ago, in the dark of night, they switched to simply handing out needles. Net result was the massive dumping of used paraphernalia in the streets. IIRC, the AIDS foundation was one big proponent and swore this was never going to happen. Harm reduction at its finest. Something tells me which ever next steps are being taken under this banner will lead us even further down the hell hole. Oh yeah, that 1% referral rate that the linkage center was able to accomplish tells me that. So 1% is the odds these two fellows passed out on Fentanyl lying draped across the sidewalk at a bus stop on Valencia and 26th on Sunday afternoon will contemplate inserting themselves into rehab. And, for that matter, anyone who might one day visit one of the euphemism-of-the-decade “wellness hubs”.

  4. There is no such thing as a “safe” dose of Fentanyl. When it comes to Fetanyl, “safe” injection sites are a fantasy.

    1. That’s not true – why else would it be administered to both children and adults in hospitals post-surgery, or at trauma centers and ERs etc?

      1. Hospital emergency rooms etc. do not administer Fentanyl that is sold by street dealers who work for Honduran drug cartels and that is often mixed with other dangerous substances. Safe injection sites typically allow drug users to bring their own drugs to the sites.

      2. Street drugs are never safe. That’s what he means. I’m all for the Swiss model, but letting addicts abuse street drugs without being a part of a larger medically supervised treatment program is just enablement.

        1. Medical supervised government provided opiates > supervised consumption sites > free for all on the streets.

          It is not either perfect or the worst. There are gradiations.

  5. Great reporting! I wish we could have some common sense compromise on issues like this — for example, how about we build supervised drug use sites and start enforcing laws against public drug use? The number of folks I see shooting up and smoking meth on the street is not acceptable. And since the city stopped enforcement, the users are more and more brazen — now shooting up and smoking on BART cars and on MUNI buses

    1. Greg —

      It’s not in this article, but *if* the city reaches a consensus on having supervised drug-use sites at all, *then* I predict part of the agreement will be enforcement of some sort against public drug-use and selling. Even the more liberal supervisors and harm-reduction advocates are okay with that, so long as the space is being provided — and, of course, depending upon what “enforcement” looks like.


      1. I’d be surprised if street dwellers would go to one of 11 institutional settings every time they wanted to use.

        I’d be interested in seeing how staff at such a facility, somewhat more structured than what we saw at UN Plaza, managed divergent post-usage behaviors of stimulants and opiates.

        And how will people either just hopped up on speed or nodding out on fentanyl or in anticipation of being hopped up on speed or nodding out on fentanyl interact with the neighborhood?

        St. John the Evangelist is is within spitting distance of a substance treatment center and an elementary school. It will be interesting to see how the theory plays out in reality.

        1. Exactly this point! There is a substance treatment facility for low-income, largely indigenous people, located just a few feet from this proposed site – not to mention an elementary school, and another facility for clean and sober individuals trying to get their lives back on track just a few short blocks away. After shooting or smoking methamphetamines, and entering a violent and psychotic state, these folks would then be sent out to rampage around the area unsupervised. The impact on the neighborhood of enabling people to shoot up or smoke dangerous substances (and inviting the dangerous armed drug dealers into the neighborhood to service these unsafe sites!) would be absolutely devastating to the low-income, working-class people of color who are living here. Please, Supervisor Ronen, the Inner Mission has had more than its share! Time to give another area a shot at dealing with the problems of the city and the nation!

  6. Very good column; thank you for it. Master of Puppets, huh? In 1986 the Giants hadn’t made the playoffs in 15 years and had Mike Krukow and Vida Blue in the rotation.

    I do wish that someone on the Board of Supervisors stood up for non-junkie residents once in a while, and took an interest in the quality of life in the city. It appears that role has fallen to the mayor.

    We can’t continue to do business the way we have been because our tax base is shrinking. We shouldn’t keep pretending the way our streets look is Fine.

    1. Thomas — 

      Thank you kindly. Off the top of my head, Kruk won 20 games that year and Vida won 10.


      1. Ah, Vida …

        He was unhittable his first year as I recall and came to the All-Star Game in St. Louis and before the game one of the reporters asked him:

        “What do you throw when you in a jam?”

        Vida answered:

        “What’s a ‘jam’?”