Why Progressives Defend Drug Dealers
And how San Francisco and other cities can shut down open drug markets
Public Defender Mano Raju, District Attorney Chesa Boudin, and Supervisor Shamann Walton
San Francisco’s District Attorney, Public Defender, and a member of the Board of Supervisors are attacking Mayor London Breed’s plan to crack down on crime and open air drug dealing as wrong-headed. D.A. Chesa Boudin said that “75 percent of those booked in jail are addicted or mentally ill” and called for a non-law enforcement-based approach. “Piling more resources into policing and punishment,” said Public Defender Mano Raju, have “never been the solutions to public health crises.” And Supervisor Shamann Walton called for a more “evidence-based” approach.
But the Mayor’s plan is evidence-based. Many addicts require the threat of jail or other forms of coercion to stop breaking the law and get their lives together. The approach to breaking up open drug scenes, treating addiction, and providing psychiatric care is fundamentally the same everywhere. The Department of Justice has even published a handbook for cities to use to break up open drug markets .
Progressives are right to worry about over-incarceration. Addicts and the mentally ill need treatment, not time in jail or prison. Simply arresting addicts and dealers and not helping them overcome their addiction, and find a new way of life, will not solve the problem.
But law enforcement is also necessary for shutting down open drug scenes. Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Lisbon, Vienna, and Zurich all closed their open-air drug scenes using a combination of law enforcement and social services. Miami over the last 20 years reduced its “homeless” population by 57 percent, despite skyrocketing rents, by closing open drug scenes and providing free psychiatric care and drug treatment and basic shelter.
The same approach has worked in other parts of the United States. In High Point, North Carolina, police targeted three neighborhoods with persistent crack cocaine dealing. There, police officers, accompanied by local community workers, met with dealers in person, asked them to stop, and offered job training, tattoo removal, and help restarting their lives. The officers gave the dealers unsigned arrest warrants, three-ring binders of the evidence against them, and video proof of their crimes.
If you asked most progressives if they'd be okay with having a highly-profitable, multi-billion dollar foreign corporation sell on their sidewalks a highly addictive product, which kills two people a day, most would say "no,” and yet that’s what San Francisco progressives are allowing by not shutting down the open air drug dealing by Honduran fentanyl dealers who work for a global cartel.
Why is that? Why do people who claim to care so much about addicts, human dignity, and city life oppose shutting down the open drug scenes that are destroying them? To answer that question, we first need to take a closer look at what has worked in the past.
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. Homeless addicts squatted in abandoned buildings. And people came from all over the world for the heroin.
At first the city tried just providing services, like San Francisco does, such as housing, clean needles, and giving people methadone, a heroin substitute, without any strings attached. It didn’t work. “In the eighties we just wanted to help people,” said a Dutch social worker. “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 had to learn the hard way.”
The Amsterdam City Council asked the Amsterdam Municipal Health Service to develop a strategy to deal with “unmotivated drug users.” 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 the social worker. “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,” he said. “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.”
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. In other words, a balance of carrot and stick are needed. Why are progressives so opposed to that?