Why They Let Fentanyl Kill Kids
California's parents will once again protest dangerous drug dealers in an attempt to save the lives of their children
In San Francisco, Venice Beach, and Sacramento I joined a Livermore, California mother named Jacqui Berlinn in a protest against dangerous drug dealers who may end up killing her son. They could kill him indirectly, by selling him fentanyl, or directly, as a consequence of his failing to pay them. Twice already he has been stabbed, and nearly died. At our protest in Venice Beach, parents whose kids were killed by fentanyl joined us. One of them, Jaime Puerta, lost his 16 year-old son, Daniel, to fentanyl poisoning in April last year. Daniel took a pill he thought was a prescription opioid.
When the parents come together, it is powerful. Our Venice Beach protest helped motivate the L.A. City Council voting to shut down the open drug scene and homeless encampments. Just putting homeless people in hotel rooms is only a temporary fix that won’t last. But our protest proved that we can force the politicians to act.
Even so, many people distance themselves emotionally from Jacqui and Jaime when they hear their stories. They tell themselves, and sometimes say out loud, that Jacqui and Jaime have only themselves to blame. That is effectively what California state legislators told Jaime and other parents earlier this year after they asked that stronger measures be taken to stop fentanyl dealing.
In truth, young men like Daniel and Corey are victims of California’s utterly broken mental health and addiction care system, something progressives say they care about, and by the unwillingness of California lawmakers to shut down open-air drug markets, as well the on-line fentanyl dealing on Snapchat.
Progressives say that the only real solution to the drug death crisis are “Safe Injection Sites,” where people like Daniel and Corey can inject drugs like fentanyl under medical supervision. The mayors of New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco last spring asked the U.S. Attorney General for permission to operate them. California’s Senate passed legislation approving them. And many Sacramento insiders believe they are inevitable.
The parents aren’t so sure. “Simply providing homeless drug addicts with heroin, fentanyl, and meth would worsen the addiction crisis,” they write in their open letter to the people of California, “and may increase drug deaths.”
What would have prevented the death of Daniel, who was poisoned after taking a single pill? A functioning mental health system, says Jaime; the government cracking down on Snapchat’s tacit acceptance of drug dealing on its platform; and proper public education campaigns like the ones that worked so well against smoking, not a Safe Injection Site.
What will save Corey? When he is charged for multiple violations of laws against public camping and public drug use, says Jacqui, and given the choice of drug treatment as an alternative to jail, not a Safe Injection Site that would serve as yet one more taxpayer-funded service enabling his debilitating and potentially deadly fentanyl addiction.
The same mix of law enforcement and services are required to shut down California’s open drug scenes, which are euphemistically called “homeless encampments.” Indeed, it was the combination of carrots and sticks, police and social workers, not social workers alone, that saved European cities like Amsterdam and Lisbon from increasingly violent drug markets, not Safe Injection Sites, contrary to the widespread misinformation spread by progressive drug decriminalization and harm reduction organizations.
What Really Happened In Europe
Rene and Dilan
In early 2019 I traveled to the Netherlands at the invitation of a member of parliament, Dilan Yeşilgöz, to give a talk at the Delft University of Technology. Afterward, Dilan and her husband, Rene Zegerius, gave me a ride back to Amsterdam.
Rene is a former second division men’s professional soccer player in his late fifties who looks like the British action film actor Jason Statham. Rene had worked as a nurse, social worker, and drug policy expert for the Dutch government since the 1980s.
“What’s the secret?” I asked him. “Amsterdam has decriminalized marijuana and many other drugs but I haven’t seen any homeless people. What is San Francisco doing wrong?”
Rene said that in the 1980s, the Zeedijk neighborhood in Amsterdam was a lot like the Tenderloin today. There was open-air drug use, particularly of heroin, and needles strewn about, as well as crime. People started to flee the neighborhood, worsening its slum conditions. Homeless people squatted in abandoned buildings.
“We had ghettos where it was not safe to go,” said Rene, who started working in the neighborhood as a nurse in 1985. It was considered a “no go” zone. “We had a lot of people from abroad who came to Amsterdam because our heroin was so good. But our heroin was so good that they died from it.”
At first the city tried a “helping approach” exclusively, offering addicts clean needles, methadone, and other forms of help without any law enforcement, but it didn’t work. “In the eighties we just wanted to help people,” said Rene. “We started with methadone programs and medical treatment. We did a lot of work without much of a carrot and a stick. It was really a disappointment. They just used the methadone to stay addicted. They dealt drugs and committed other crimes. They lied and cheated about it. We were just supporting a different kind of market. We had to learn the hard way.
“We started as very motivated caretakers,” Rene said, “but at some point, with drug addicts, you have to change your attitude. You can’t help with just giving. I always watch Dr. Phil with my wife”—here Rene did his best impersonation of Dr. Phil—“‘It’s not working for you,’ he would have said. And it wasn’t.”
The police and social workers didn’t work together. “There were two separate worlds because doctors did not talk with police officers,” said Rene, “and we had a lot of people dying on the streets. It didn’t work and it didn’t feel good as well because our [jail] cells were bad and the street was still filled up with a lot of people who were addicted and who committed a lot of crimes.”
The Amsterdam City Council asked the Amsterdam Municipal Health Service to develop a strategy to deal with “unmotivated drug users.” Said Rene, “it took until the beginning of the nineties to work something out in collaboration with the College of Police. They thought that we were some silly nutcases who were only good for the flu or whatever. And we thought that they only saw the bad side of people. You need people to change that. I was fortunate in that I had to work with some police colleagues who I still see. They convinced me and I convinced them. At some point, we started making house calls together.”
The police broke up the open-air drug scene and health workers were on hand to offer methadone, treatment, and shelter. The police broke up gatherings of more than four or five users, but did not treat personal and private use as a crime. Officers ticketed violators, and if users did not pay their fines, which was frequent, the courts ordered arrests, and sentenced individuals to follow a treatment plan or face incarceration.
“For every individual homeless person, we make a plan,” said Rene. “We made tens of thousands of those plans.” Plans are overseen by a caseworker and a team that may include a psychiatrist, shelter provider, service provider, judge, employer, parole officer, and police officer. “You need people in the police and health department working together,” he said.
What Amsterdam did was the same as other major European cities. Lisbon, Frankfurt, Vienna, and Zurich all dealt with their open-air drug markets, using a combination of law enforcement and social services.
The efforts worked. “We had several thousand people who were addicted to heroin in the eighties and nineties,” said Rene. “Many died. Today we have four or five hundred people addicted to methadone. And we have about 120 in Amsterdam who we supply heroin to on a medical basis because methadone doesn’t work for them. They have to use heroin.”
The approach to breaking up open drug scenes, treating addiction, and providing psychiatric care is fundamentally the same whether in five European cities, Philadelphia, New York, or Phoenix. Miami over the last 20 years reduced its “homeless” population by 57 percent — despite skyrocketing rents — and ended open drug scenes, by providing free psychiatric care and drug treatment, along with basic shelter, to all who need it. The Department of Justice has even published a handbook for cities to use to break the markets up using both social services and law enforcement.
In truth, there is little unique in how the Netherlands ended its open-air drug scene. It just happened to be one of the first nations to realize that it needed to use both law enforcement and social services because either one alone was insufficient.
Why They Think The Dealers Are Victims
Could it be that California’s progressive policymakers are simply ignorant of what worked in Europe? It could be. I have found most policymakers in California to be utterly ignorant of what European cities like Amsterdam and Lisbon actually did, overly reliant on what advocacy groups tell them, and provincial in their outlook. While progressive Californians may vacation in Europe, they don’t understand how it deals with addiction and homelessness.
Progressive decriminalization and harm reduction advocates with groups like Harm Reduction Coalition and the Drug Policy Alliance don’t have the same excuse. Their leaders have gone on delegations to European nations, and have published reports on their trips, which acknowledge but play down the role of law enforcement. They know the real situation, and have chosen to misrepresent it.
Last November, an expert from Drug Policy Alliance told San Francisco’s Drug Dealing Task Force that “indiscriminately removing sellers from the market” results in the “Interruption of interpersonal/working relationships between sellers who know each other.”
The Executive Director of Drug Policy Alliance, Sheila Vakharia said on Twitter that most drug dealers are “ordinary people, making little money” who “feel connected to their customers” but “bear the burden of criminalization.”
Progressive policymakers say similar things. When he ran for office in 2018, San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin announced, “We will not prosecute cases involving quality-of-life crimes. Crimes such as public camping, offering or soliciting sex, public urination, blocking a sidewalk, etc., should not and will not be prosecuted.”
Enforcing the law contributes to further victimization, says Boudin. “Jails do nothing to treat the root cause of crime,” he said. Boudin called “open-air drug use and drug sales… technically victimless crimes.” When Boudin announced that he was not going to prosecute street-level drug dealers he said it was because they are “themselves [are] victims of human trafficking.”
In fact, there is little evidence to support Boudin’s claim that the fentanyl dealers in San Francisco are dealing drugs against their will. “These guys would show me pictures of the houses they were building back home in Honduras,” said Tom Wolf, another member of San Francisco’s Drug Dealing Task Force, who for several months was a homeless fentanyl addict.
Boudin’s position incensed many San Franciscans. “It makes no sense that the district attorney will tell you that he has more fear of a Honduran dealer’s family having challenges than a local family whose kid OD’d on fentanyl,” said restaurateur Adam Mesnick. “I mean, it’s absurd. This guy protects dealers.”
Do progressives oppose breaking up street fentanyl dealing because the dealers are ethnic minorities and immigrants who progressive leaders view as victims? Perhaps. Vakharia tweeted that “our history of racialized drug seller stereotypes… helped us to justify punishment and criminalization” of drug dealing.
But the victims of overdose and poisoning are people of color, too. Jaime Puerta is an immigrant to California from Colombia and his son, Daniel, was what progressives call “Latinx.”
The main motivation of Boudin and other progressive Democrats for not breaking up the street fentanyl markets appears to be decarceration. “The challenge going forward,” said Boudin in 2019, “is how do we close a jail?” And despite everything that’s happened, Governor Gavin Newsom still champions Proposition 47, which decriminalized possession of three grams of hard drugs including fentanyl, recently affirmed his approach to criminal justice, and last Friday held a public event with Boudin in San Francisco.
Newsom oversaw the reduction of the number of people in California prisons by one-third, from 122,000 to 94,500, since January last year, but because the state did not have any way of helping former prisoners re-enter society, many ended up in open drug scenes, sometimes working as drug dealers, according to Wolf and Los Angeles homeless service provider, Rev. Andy Bales, who operates the largest homeless shelter in Skid Row.
The result is a populist backlash so powerful that it may end up recalling Newsom from office next month. The parents and I have repeatedly felt the public’s frustration and anger with homelessness up close and in person. “All these people are felons!” screamed a man from his truck at us as we walked through Skid Row with Rev. Bales a few weeks ago. “You have to stop feeding them.”
The problem is that simply not feeding street addicts and dealers won’t get people like Corey and Daniel the psychiatric and addiction care they need. The lesson from Amsterdam and Lisbon isn’t that we have to stop helping addicts. It’s that we have to help them in a different way.
In an open letter it is releasing at a 10 am press conference at the Sheraton Grand in Sacramento tomorrow morning, the California Peace Coalition argues for a middle path between mass homelessness and mass incarceration.
We propose the centralization of mental health and addiction services at the state level through a new agency, Cal-Psych, given the failure of counties to solve the problem; temporary shelter for all who need it, and the requirement that it be used; the enforcement of laws against public camping, defecation, and drug use; and the restoration of mandatory addiction and psychiatric treatment as an alternative to jail and prison.
“California needs a system of universal psychiatric and addiction care. Most experts agree that the current system is too fragmented between different agencies and institutions to be effective,” we write. “Cal-Psych could oversee a Public Service Advertising campaign to warn of the dangers of things like fentanyl, and work with student and youth organizations to make illicit drug use uncool, in the way that the anti-cigarette Truth Campaign did two decades ago.”
Sticks are needed, too. “Proposition 47, which decriminalized the possession of up to three grams of hard drugs, needs to be reformed to restore treatment as an alternative to jail, rather than being optional. The governor needs to coordinate law enforcement agencies so that when drug markets are closed in one neighborhood they don’t simply re-emerge elsewhere,” we write. “Many addicts require the threat of jail or other forms of coercion to stop breaking the law and get their lives together.”
But policing and jail sentences are not the same thing as mass incarceration. “In fact,” we note, “research shows that ‘swift and certain’ consequences for law-breaking are more effective than slow, uncertain, and longer sentences.”
Breaking up the open drug scenes requires that California move away from a “Housing First” policy to a “Shelter First” policy. “Housing should be a reward for abstinence and other behaviors, not an entitlement. Building sufficient shelter, and requiring people to use it, is a crucial step to ending the open drug scenes.”
We end our letter on a positive note. “While the scope of the problem is daunting, solving it holds the potential to bring us together, as liberals and conservatives, as Californians, and as Americans.” Already, this practical, nonpartisan, and heterodoxical vision has brought together parents of kids at risk of being killed with parents of kids killed last year by fentanyl.
By fighting to save the lives of young addicts like Corey, parents have an opportunity to produce something beautiful, even transformative, out of the deaths of their children. That’s the way it is for Jaime. “Why are you going to Jacqui’s protest?” I asked him last week. He thought for a moment and then said, “I just don’t want to see any more kids die.”