Has CHP and National Guard Reduced SF Drug Dealing?

by on May 16, 2023

Photo shows UN Plaza, May 13, 11pm
UN Plaza, May 13, 11pm

Is Governor Newsom’s Bold Action Succeeding?

Three weeks ago, California Governor Gavin Newsom provided the California Highway Patrol (CHP) and National Guard (NG) to help San Francisco close its open-air drug markets. Many of us were elated by the news. We worked hard to convince Newsom that the SFPD could not close drug markets on its own and our efforts finally paid off.  Meanwhile, opponents of arresting drug dealers— like D5 Supervisor Dean Preston—criticized Newsom’s action as a “publicity stunt” that would not meaningfully improve the Tenderloin.

Nobody claimed that Newsom was providing a magic bullet that would suddenly end San Francisco’s out of control drug scene. But a positive difference is being made. Recovery advocate Tom Wolf notes, “the CHP has been a visible presence assisting the police in the Tenderloin/SOMA area.  While the National Guard is only present for logistical help, there has been an uptick in busts of drug houses in Oakland where many of the street dealers in SF live. More time is needed to see the impacts.”

These Oakland arrests also reflect increased focus by the federal DEA. That’s action that we have also been calling for (See, “In SF, Open Drug Markets on Federal Land,” March 20, 2023).

JJ Smith, whose video of Newsom touring the Tenderloin went viral, believes state resources have enabled the SFPD to “step their game up and make more meaningful busts. The CHP is relieving the SFPD of traffic enforcement so Tenderloin officers can focus on more tactical ways to arrest dealers.” Like everyone I spoke with Smith has not seen a visible presence of the National Guard.

Isabel Manchester, whose Phoenix Hotel has been the de facto headquarters of the Tenderloin Business Coalition, also sees progress since the CHP arrived. “I think everyone has seen the CHP around and so yes, we can say there is improvement. All of this helps a lot – it just needs to be more consistent.”

Pratibha Tekkey, organizing director for the Tenderloin Housing Clinic (publisher of Beyond Chron), agrees that the CHP is playing a positive role. Tekkey sees “a lot more visible officers in the Tenderloin during the day. But problems remain after the CHP leaves at 10pm.” She shares the concern of others about the sustainability of the Newsom effort: “I hear talk about it ending in sixty days but that won’t be long enough.”

The sixty day period remains only a rumor. The SFPD is unaware of any deadline. Nor has the mayor mentioned such.

Newsom understandably would not make an open ended commitment and activists have continually called for a firm deadline to close drug markets. I have to believe the Governor will not withdraw resources if they are still needed as he has now taken direct responsibility for helping end the city’s drug crisis.

Many believe a more specific and clear plan for utilizing state and federal resources is needed. The lack of such a coordinated plan helped doom Mayor Breed’s December 2020 Emergency Declaration for the Tenderloin. It’s clear that shifting CHP to traffic enforcement is part of SFPD’s plan but the role of the NG remains unclear.

For example, many note that the huge open drug market at Seventh and Stephenson has been broken up during the day with dealers shifting to the Nancy Pelosi Federal Building. Is this part of a plan for a federal crackdown on their property or the lack of a more strategic drug closure plan for the area?

New Ad Campaign Launched

San Francisco  gets national media coverage for its open drug dealing and usage for one reason: the city remains an international outlier for the openness of its cartel-driven illegal drug activities.

That’s why a new advertising campaign by TogetherSF Action highlighting the drug crisis could not come at a better time. The campaign puts the city’s need to close open drug markets front and center. I reviewed some of the ads and they will definitely get people talking. As TogetherSF Action CEO and Founder Kanishka Cheng put it, “We can no longer ignore the devastating consequences of San Francisco’s approach to ending open air drug markets and helping those suffering from addiction. We must demand more from our city leaders because our communities and neighborhoods are living and breathing this inhumane reality daily. Our campaign and coalition aims to hold our elected officials accountable to building a safe and healthy San Francisco.”

Focusing on Drug Crisis is Not “Doom and Gloom”

Some believe that stories like the one you are reading offer an unfairly negative depiction of the city.  Most curious are progressives sugarcoating the city’s problems instead of blaming them on  “moderate” Mayor Breed.

Tweets responded to the closure of Whole Foods and Nordstrom by listing businesses that remain open. Many questioned whether open drug activities were even a factor in the closures. Photos of packed restaurants, Golden Gate Park and active street life in many neighborhoods were used to refute doom and gloom scenarios for San Francisco.

That’s a strange progressive strategy.

Are progressives telling the people of the Tenderloin, Mid-Market and SOMA to shut up and stop complaining about the open drug activities tormenting these neighborhoods? I know that can’t be the goal. Making believe the city’s problems are exaggerated has never been and cannot be a progressive strategy. After all, it’s a short step from saying media should ignore drug dealers than to argue it should ignore stories about poverty altogether—as that is really gloomy.

The best way to rid talk of doom and gloom is for San Francisco to close its open air drug markets. Censoring their existence does not make the crisis go away.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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