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Massive Rise in SF Drug Overdose Deaths: City Hall Demonstration Demands Action

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By Camila Vergara

This Tuesday was International Overdose Awareness Day, a global effort to prevent overdoses and grieve those who have passed away. To mark it, activists gathered in front of City Hall in protest of the rise in accidental drug overdoses in San Francisco and to pressure city officials to take serious action to address it. 

Drug overdose deaths in San Francisco have been seriously climbing in the past couple of years, resulting in 712 deaths in 2020 alone. For comparison, 261 San Franciscans died of Covid in that same time. 

OFFICE OF THE CHIEF MEDICAL EXAMINER CITY AND COUNTY OF SAN FRANCISCO

Both Covid and the drug epidemic are legitimate public health crises, but so far overdose deaths are not being treated with equal urgency. “I can’t help but wonder why we don’t treat this epidemic with the same level of severity,” said a spokesperson from the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, which helped organize the protest. “And I can’t help but conclude that it’s just a classist war. A war on the poor, on the marginalized, the disproportionately black and brown and LGBTQ.” 

SF City Hall, Demonstrators demand safe injection sites. 8/31/2021

Protesters demanded that Mayor London Breed declare a public health state of emergency over these deaths (as she did with Covid), and that the Board of Supervisors create safe consumption sites in San Francisco once this has been declared. 

Safe consumption sites (also known as safe injection facilities) are safe, clean, supervised places for people to use drugs. There are well over a hundred of these sites operating in Canada, Europe, and Australia, but there’s still a lot of legal back and forth over whether they’re technically prohibited in the US, and, while a few have come close, no state has managed to authorize them yet.

“A member of Health Right 360 leads a training session on administering Narcan.”

Safe consumption sites have become even more of a hot-button issue as the drug overdose epidemic has worsened nationwide, partly thanks to the growing presence of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, in the drug supply. While 712 San Franciscans died last year, a record 93,000 Americans died due to overdose overall, and over 60% of these deaths involved fentanyl. Safe consumption sites would offer support and resources for preventing overdoses and infectious diseases, offering sterile syringes and testing strips so people can actually know what’s in their drugs. Trained staff would also be on hand to help in case anything goes haywire – they could immediately deliver a life-saving dose of Narcan, for instance, and quickly reverse an opioid overdose. 

According to Laura Guzman from the Drug Overdose Prevention and Education (DOPE) Project, who also spoke at the protest, there have already been 5,000 Narcan overdose reversals in San Francisco in 2021. Harm reduction services are already working. Instead of ignoring, blaming, or criminalizing the estimated 25,000 San Franciscans who use drugs (and that’s just the people who respond to surveys), safe consumption sites would allow us to further reduce some of the massive risks to using, and stop the steep upward trend in fatal overdoses. 

“White flags planted by activists to represent each San Franciscans who died from an overdose in 2020.”

It seems like City Hall is gradually taking harm reduction approaches on board, too. Plans are already in place for opening a drug sobering center, and, in July, the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Breed voted unanimously in favor of authorizing safe consumption sites.

San Francisco would need for the state bill authorizing safe consumption sites to pass first, though, and this bill has repeatedly been held up by officials dragging their feet over the issue. Its hearing has now been delayed until January 2022, but with two San Franciscans dying every day from accidental drug overdose, any delay seems like too long a wait. Activists think it is necessary and justified for Breed to acknowledge the drug overdose epidemic for what it is and move forward with safe consumption sites by declaring a state of emergency. 

San Francisco is facing two serious epidemics, but we still haven’t taken bold, swift action against drug overdose deaths. As one of the protest signs read, every overdose death will be a policy failure until we do. 


If you want to support the fight for safe consumption sites in San Francisco, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation is circulating this petition. Sign online or text PREVENT OD to 52886. You can also help save lives by carrying Narcan and learning how to use it. The CBHS Pharmacy at 1380 Howard St offers free Narcan kits and training, and Narcan can be bought without a prescription at any pharmacy. 

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