SAN FRANCISCO - Starting soon, opioid-related deaths in San Francisco will be investigated as homicides.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom is teaming up with San Francisco leaders to establish a new law enforcement task force to investigate and treat opioid deaths the same way as homicide cases, potentially charging drug dealers with murder, the Governor's Office announced Friday.
The task force will include officers from the San Francisco Police Department, the California Highway Patrol, the California National Guard and the San Francisco District Attorney's office.
The move comes after the United States has been plagued with opioid-related deaths for nearly 25 years, when the epidemic started in the late 90s due in part to doctors over-prescribing pain medications. Nearly 1 million people have died from opioid-related overdoses since 1999, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.
The goal of the SF task force will be to further the investigative process to focus on the supply chain of fentanyl, large drug trafficking rings and to hold drug traffickers accountable for deaths related to their products.
"The opioid crisis has claimed too many, and fentanyl traffickers must be held accountable including, as appropriate, for murder," Newsom said in a press release.
Similar task forces have been implemented in San Diego and Fresno, although data showing success rates has yet to be published.
SF District Attorney Brooke Jenkins said the new task force will expand on SF County's investigative abilities.
"Working together we will be able to investigate fatal fentanyl overdoses where evidence may be collected to establish a connection to the person who provided the drugs that killed someone so that they can possibly be charged with murder," Jenkins said. "Drug dealers and traffickers have caused the death of far too many individuals in our community and this new tool will give us a better chance to hold them accountable for the true dangerousness of their conduct."
Last month, SF health officials reported 84 overdose deaths in the city and estimated deaths could reach nearly 850 by the year's end. The sharp rise in overdose deaths comes amid a crackdown by state and local officials to combat drug dealing in San Francisco.
Since May, when SF law enforcement teamed up with the CHP and CalGuard, over 40 pounds of fentanyl have been seized and 364 felony and misdemeanor arrests have been made, officials said. The task force will be in full operational sometime in early 2024, though the number of law enforcement officials tasked to the new unit has yet to be determined.
San Francisco's top elected official see the new task force as a vital part in combating fentanyl trafficking.
"Fentanyl is deadlier than any drug we’ve ever seen on our streets," Mayor London Breed said in a press release. "We must treat the trafficking and sale of fentanyl more severely and people must be put on notice that pushing this drug could lead to homicide charges."
But not everyone is sold on the idea. The San Francisco Public Defender's office said the new task force conflicts with decades of research, and said programs focusing on harm reduction are a more humane approach.
"Threatening to charge people with murder is unfortunately likely to result in more overdoses, as people will be afraid to call for help," Mano Raju, SF's elected public defender, said in a statement. "We need to invest in harm reduction methods including life-saving tools like Narcan and fentanyl testing strips; on-demand and low-barrier substance use and mental health treatment; stable housing; long-term education investments; and job training to heal our community."