A Survivor’s Perspective on San Francisco’s Drug Crisis

Monday: A poignant voice in the debate over what can be done to combat overdose deaths.,

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ImageJamel Davis in front of his tent in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood in San Francisco. He said his girlfriend died from a fentanyl overdose.
Jamel Davis in front of his tent in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood in San Francisco. He said his girlfriend died from a fentanyl overdose.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Good morning.

While reporting a recent article on the drug overdose crisis in San Francisco, I called Thomas Wolf, one of the loudest critics of the city’s policies, to run past him what I was hearing from professors and other experts who have spent their lives studying drug use.

“Forgive me for saying this,” Mr. Wolf politely told me, “but those people who you said you talked to — the experts — they have never shot dope, man. They never stuck a needle in their neck. They never spent a night on the street.”

Mr. Wolf has done all of those things, which makes him one of the most poignant voices in the debate over what San Francisco should do to address an epidemic that claimed 713 lives last year, more than twice as many as died from the coronavirus in the city in 2020.

I took in Mr. Wolf’s main message: that the rampant availability of drugs in San Francisco, especially the fast-acting and very often deadly opioid fentanyl, makes it very difficult for users to successfully seek treatment and recover.

“What I’m pushing for is an urgency for the city to expand and promote drug treatment for people,” he said. “It’s not enough to just hand out clean needles. We need to take it a step further and get you off the street.”

When Mr. Wolf and I walked through the Tenderloin last week, we stopped at the doorway where, for a few months in 2018, he used to sleep on a piece of cardboard. He spoke of the depths that he sank to as an addict. When he was still living at home, he would drive to the Tenderloin in the family minivan with his children in the back seats. To pay for his habit, he liquidated his life savings and stole razor blades from Target to fence on the streets. He worked as a mule for Honduran dealers, carrying their drugs in gym socks.

“You can study homelessness and addiction in a book all day long,” Mr. Wolf told me. “But until you have experienced the power of addiction and the things you thought you would never resort to, you don’t really understand.”

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Many police officers, emergency medical workers and drug users carry naloxone to help reverse overdoses.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Mr. Wolf, whose mother immigrated from Mexico, spoke to the dealers in Spanish and helped them wire money to their families in Honduras. They showed him pictures of the homes they were building with their drug earnings. Mr. Wolf noted the fancy furnishings and the new cars in the driveways.

Eight of the people Mr. Wolf met when he was on the streets are now dead from overdoses.

Mr. Wolf was arrested five times between April and June 2018 for drug possession. The sixth time, he was jailed and charged with violating a stay-away order and intent to sell drugs. In jail, he was given medication to help relieve his withdrawal symptoms. He was bailed out by his brother on the condition that he enter rehab. He is now back with his family.

A lifelong Democrat, Mr. Wolf says he shares the goals of harm reduction in San Francisco. But he argues that some of the programs that the city funds, like handing out foil and straws to fentanyl users, cross the line into enabling drug use.

The city’s nonjudgmental approach to drug use is hurting the people it is meant to help, he says.

“The Tenderloin has always been the drug users’ and dealers’ epicenter in San Francisco,” Mr. Wolf said. “But in recent years, you’ve created the environment of easy access to drugs 24/7.”

“It’s nearly impossible to get clean and it’s impossible to stay clean,” he said.


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Pumpjacks operating in Bakersfield. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on Friday that he would halt all new fracking permits in the state by January 2024.Credit…Etienne Laurent/EPA, via Shutterstock

Compiled by Manny Fernandez

  • Gov. Gavin Newsom, on the heels of Earth Day, announced a plan to ban fracking and to consider phasing out oil production statewide. But neither one will happen immediately, disappointing environmental groups.

  • Caitlyn Jenner, the Republican former Olympian and transgender activist, said she would challenge Governor Newsom in this year’s likely recall election. She called herself a “compassionate disrupter.”

  • The vaccinated, partially vaccinated and unvaccinated are navigating a tricky new social landscape in California, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

  • California National Guard members feared that commanders were considering using a fighter jet to frighten protesters last year, The Los Angeles Times reports.

  • In its zeal to prevent building collapses during earthquakes, San Francisco may have set the stage for building fires in the aftermath of a quake, Mission Local reports.

  • San Jose State faces a reckoning after an athletic trainer accused in 2009 of sexual abuse by more than a dozen women was allowed to continue treating female athletes. Current and former employees suggest university leaders may have been more interested in protecting the university than in protecting athletes, The Mercury News reports.

  • The City of Fresno has reached a $4.9 million tentative settlement with the family of an unarmed teenager killed by the police. It came weeks after the city agreed to settle a separate case and pay $4.4 million to the family of another man killed by the police, The Fresno Bee reports.

  • A councilwoman in Temecula compared the fight against coronavirus mask rules to Rosa Parks’s struggle for civil rights in Alabama in the 1950s. Local civil-rights leaders were outraged by the comparison, The Riverside Press-Enterprise reports.

  • The newly opened migrant shelter at the Long Beach Convention Center could help boost the local economy by contributing up to $40 million in direct and indirect spending, The Press-Telegram reports.

  • The mass vaccination site at Disneyland is set to close on Friday, which, as KTLA reports, is the same day Disneyland and Disney California Adventure are reopening to the public.

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Chloe Zhao became the first woman of color to win an Oscar for directing.Credit…Pool photo by Chris Pizzello

At the socially distant Oscars, Chloe Zhao won best director for “Nomadland,” becoming the first woman of color, and only the second woman, to win the award.

It didn’t take long for the headlines about Ms. Zhao, who is Chinese, to get local.

“Ojai’s Chloe Zhao makes history,” read the news alert sent out by The Ventura County Star.

Ojai, a scenic city of nearly 7,500 in Ventura County, is known for horse trails, wellness tourism and a citywide ban on chain stores. As Vulture wrote in February, “Chloe Zhao currently lives in Ojai, in the Topatopa Mountains outside Los Angeles, with her partner and cinematographer, Joshua James Richards, their two dogs and some chickens in a house overlooking orange groves.”


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