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‘They’re going to die’: San Francisco, Vancouver drug crises have advocate calling for intervention

Click to play video: 'Calls for intervention as San Francisco and Vancouver face deadly drug crises'
Calls for intervention as San Francisco and Vancouver face deadly drug crises
With the escalation of homelessness and drug issues during the pandemic, a delegation of Vancouver police and business leaders recently travelled to San Francisco to examine how their Chinatown is coping after COVID-19. Harm reduction has been one of the main tactics in tackling the opioid crisis in both cities – but south of the border, police and recovery advocates say intervention is also needed to stop people from dying. Kristen Robinson reports – Sep 6, 2022

With the escalation of homelessness and drug issues during the pandemic, a delegation of Vancouver police and business leaders recently travelled to San Francisco to examine how their Chinatown is coping after COVID-19.

Harm reduction has been one of the main tactics in tackling the opioid crisis in both cities – but south of the border, police and recovery advocates say intervention is also needed to stop people from dying.

Many of San Francisco’s close to 8,000 homeless people end up in the Tenderloin – the epicenter of a drug crisis that claimed 700 lives in 2020 and 650 more in 2021.

When the city’s mayor declared a state of emergency in the troubled district in December 2021, London Breed said about two people a day were dying of overdoses in the Tenderloin, with fentanyl being the number one killer.

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“The bottom line is that sooner or later people have to make a choice and that choice right now is either find recovery, seek recovery, pursue recovery, or death,” said recovery advocate Tom Wolf.

“Those are our choices because the drug itself fentanyl has taken away any other choices.”

Read more: More doctors across Canada should prescribe safer drugs to reduce overdoses: minister

Wolf spent six months living on the 300-block of Golden Gate Avenue as a homeless heroin and fentanyl addict, hustling to maintain his habit.

The former public servant was prescribed oxycodone for pain after foot surgery in 2015.

He got hooked, spending his mortgage money on street drugs.

When Wolf’s house went into foreclosure three years later, he said his wife told him to get treatment – or get out.

Wolf, who was in withdrawal at the time, chose to leave.

“That’s how powerful addiction is,” Wolf told Global News in an interview.

Click to play video: 'No end in sight to B.C.’s drug overdose crisis'
No end in sight to B.C.’s drug overdose crisis

While Wolf supports harm reduction, he believes there must be a balance between policing and public health.

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“We’ve gone from a situation of where we were trying to hold people accountable at one point and maybe move them off the street into treatment that would hopefully end their homelessness – Into just supporting drug users in perpetuity,” he said.

In June, San Francisco residents voted overwhelmingly to recall their district attorney, Chesa Boudin, who was elected in November 2019 on a progressive platform to reform the criminal justice system and reduce incarceration.

But his time in office coincided with the pandemic and viral footage of brazen shoplifting incidents and attacks against Asian Americans.

Critics like Wolf accused Boudin of being too lenient on violent criminals and said his policies were putting public safety at risk.

“You can’t just let organized drug dealers sell kilos and kilos and kilos of dope in one neighbourhood, that are driving 600-700 overdose deaths a year,” said Wolf.

“There has to be some measure of accountability.”

Click to play video: 'Over 10,000 people have died in B.C. since public health emergency declared'
Over 10,000 people have died in B.C. since public health emergency declared

The San Francisco Police Department is cracking down on the Tenderloin’s open-air drug market but its top cop said enforcement alone is not enough.

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“We’ve got to go beyond that because that will not get us to where we need to go,” Chief William Scott told Global News in an interview.

Last month, California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that would have allowed legal safe drug injection sites to open in three cities across the state.

The new legislation would have created a five-year trial at sites in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Oakland.

In a signed veto letter, Newsom said “worsening drug consumption challenges in these areas is not a risk we can take.”

Newsom said he has long supported cutting-edge harm reduction strategies but opponents like Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Don Barnes called it a “backward proposal” that “shows a disregard for life and would accelerate CA’s drug epidemic.”

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Safe injection sites have been operating for almost two decades in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where the first sanctioned supervised drug injection site in North America opened in 2003.

Since then, Insite said it has saved thousands of lives and millions of health-care dollars each year in its partnership with Vancouver Coastal Health.

The SFPD chief believes harm reduction strategies are a good thing but also supports a balanced, evidence-based approach – including compelling some to get treatment.

“I do believe intervention is needed in some cases,” Scott told Global News.

“Whatever those folks are addicted on sometimes it’s beyond what they’re able to do themselves to help their condition and their situation.”

Wolf said he was one of those people.

The SFPD eventually posted Wolf’s mugshot on Twitter in June 2018 after his fifth drug arrest on Golden Gate Avenue in the heart of the Tenderloin.

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The arresting officer, Rob Gilson, who Wolf knew from previous arrests, pulled him aside before he was booked at the station.

“He says look I don’t know what’s going on with you but I’ve talked to your wife so I know that you’re a family man and you’re dirty, you’re skinny, your clothes are dirty,” recalled Wolf.

“I don’t know what it is you need to do but you need to get yourself cleaned up and get back to your family.”

This time, the message resonated.

“I was just broken at that point,” said Wolf.

Wolf spent three months in county jail followed by six months in in-patient rehab at the Salvation Army ARC.

He’s now clean and back home with his wife and teenage children.

“There is a subset of people out here that are already at their lowest point that are nearly impossible to help that require some kind of intervention – otherwise they’re going to die,” said Wolf, who hopes his story will save others.

“I’m not comfortable with that, San Francisco should not be comfortable with that, Vancouver should not be comfortable with that.”

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