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San Francisco fentanyl dealers could face murder charges in fatal overdoses

Posted at 1:06 PM, Oct 28, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-28 13:06:55-04

(CNN) — A new task force for San Francisco’s opioid crisis will empower law enforcement to investigate fatal drug overdoses as homicides, enabling prosecutors to charge dealers with murder, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and city officials announced Friday.

The task force will treat opioid deaths in San Francisco like homicide cases in the way it documents deaths, gathers evidence and processes intelligence to map out crime syndicates, the governor’s office said in a news release.

Authorities want to particularly target fentanyl dealers, and they could potentially be charged with murder, prosecutors said.

The task force will include personnel from the city police department and district attorney’s office, as well as the California Highway Patrol and the California National Guard.

The highway patrol may best be known for freeway chases and the Hollywood glamour of its motorcycle cops in television shows like “ChiPs.” But now the storied agency is patrolling the streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood as part of a multiagency effort to crack down on rampant drug dealing.

On one day, CNN watched as task force members arrested a suspected drug dealer accused of selling meth and fentanyl. Inside a plastic bag: 33 grams of fentanyl that CHP officer Andy Barclay estimates, at its worst, could potentially kill thousands of people.

Preliminary city data show that 619 people have died this year as of September from unintentional drug overdoses, on track to outnumber 2022’s 647 deaths. The state stepped up its anti-opioid efforts in San Francisco in May.

“The opioid crisis has claimed too many, and fentanyl traffickers must be held accountable including, as appropriate, for murder,” Newsom said in a statement. “This task force is fighting for those affected by this crisis – for victims and loved ones who deserve peace.”

Mayor London Breed said, “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.”

The governor’s office said the new task force is expected to be fully operational by early 2024.

Not everyone was a fan of the new approach.

Tracy McCray, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, said the opioid crisis “has steadily squeezed the life out of our city” and is not a new problem.

McCray said officers currently can’t respond to all 911 calls immediately or fully investigate all crimes, “because we are down 600 officers from where the Department and voters say we should be and based on SFPD’s data, next year we will be down 700 officers. That is the crisis that needs to be addressed immediately and aggressively.”

Mano Raju, San Francisco’s public defender, called the task force “another step in the wrong direction toward the continued revival of the failed War on Drugs in SF.”

His office urged leaders to “prioritize evidence-based public health strategies rather than throwing more public resources at a punitive approach that has failed time and time again.”