When it comes to drugs, is San Jose the next San Francisco?
Narcan is often passed at encampments where drug use is common. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    When it comes to drug use and dealing, San Jose is no San Francisco—though some residents and leaders are projecting that it’s heading that way.

    San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan recently stood at a busy downtown intersection with one message: if you are caught dealing in San Jose, you will be swiftly arrested and prosecuted. Mahan has joined the growing list of Bay Area politicians determined to combat the state’s drug epidemic, using a carrot and stick approach—some placed in treatment, others arrested.

    Mahan then met with downtown neighborhood leaders and worried residents to assure them the city has a plan. This includes hiring more officers to patrol the downtown area, increasing treatment programs and providing additional resources—including job training or supportive housing.

    “How we respond can prevent the problem from spiraling out of control,” Mahan told San José Spotlight. “And in San Jose, we are sending a clear message—our city has a zero tolerance policy for drug dealing, drug buying and drug use on our streets.”

    But despite local politicians describing San Jose’s drug problem as an open air drug market—a well-defined geographical area where buyers and sellers can easily locate each other—neighborhoods aren’t overrun by dealers with drugs and guns lining their pockets, as has been described in reports of near-daily incidents in San Francisco. There seemingly aren’t corners in San Jose where addicts frequent to access drugs. Although there are some reported instances of public drug use, that is not nearly enough to inflate the problem to San Francisco levels, said Keith Humphreys, a psychiatry professor at Stanford University and former senior drug policy adviser for former President Barack Obama’s administration.

    “If somebody is intoxicated on the street and they don’t have a residence, that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s any open air dealing. It could just be they don’t have anywhere else to go,” Humphreys told San José Spotlight.

    Humphreys said people who live on the street may know where to access drugs, but unlike San Francisco, it’s not happening in neighborhoods or in front of businesses in downtown.

    Contrasting behavior

    Lighthouse Ministries Pastor Ralph Olmos, who runs a food pantry for unhoused residents in San Jose, is a recovering methamphetamine addict who works closely with that population. He said using language like ‘open air drug markets’ and ‘increased enforcement’ is code for criminalizing more homeless residents who suffer from drug addiction. He said most people buy and sell drugs at encampments or from homes and that the process is very covert—always moving because encampments are often swept.

    “There are of course places where you can get drugs (in San Jose),” Olmos told San José Spotlight. “But I don’t know if there’s really pockets like San Francisco where they’re sitting out in the open selling and doing things like meth. That hasn’t happened yet, though we could certainly get there.”

    Olmos said this covert drug dealing approach has been part of  San Jose for decades.

    “You could say it’s gotten worse because the cartels are a big part of what’s happening with the unhoused,” Olmos said. “They’re taking advantage of that situation because they can move drugs easily through the creeks and encampments.”

    It’s a stark difference to what’s plaguing San Francisco where some neighborhoods are knowingly open 24/7 for drugs, like the Tenderloin, where recent reports by the San Francisco Chronicle revealed a pipeline for drugs flooding into the city through trafficking operations with origins in Honduras. Humphreys, who volunteers in the Tenderloin, said San Jose has been able to steer clear of open air drug markets largely because of historical differences. Describing San Jose as having similar issues is not equatable to the ongoings of the wider Bay Area, he said.

    Because of San Francisco’s long-history with drugs being an acceptable form of recreation, residents are not naturally as anti-drug as those in San Jose – making it hard for elected officials to muster political will to curb drug use in San Francisco. And as a result, Humphreys said drug use and dealing remained unenforced and grew to its present the state of emergency.

    “If there isn’t some pressure on dealers to be covert, they will immediately move to an overt model because it allows buyers and sellers to find each other efficiently,” Humphreys said.

    Zero latitude 

    In contrast, tolerance for drug use is much lower in San Jose because residents are not accustomed to seeing it on the streets. Dealers also know San Jose police prioritize drug crimes, which is a deterrent for public dealing, Humphreys continued.

    Just last week, the San Jose Police Department arrested two drug trafficking suspects and seized 28,000 adderall pills, 1,000 fentanyl pills, 30 pounds of marijuana, 40 grams of cocaine and 3 ounces of methamphetamine. In the last year, SJPD made more than 4,600 drug related arrests.

    “This was an outstanding example of proactive police work aimed at keeping the community safe and preventing street violence,” the department said.

    In Santa Clara County, drug related deaths doubled from 202 in 2016 to 432 last year, according to the county data.

    Even with San Jose’s ramp up in arrests and drug seizures, the city is still challenged. The city and county law enforcement departments remain thinly staffed and resource deprived, and while Mahan has control over the city’s police department, it’s the county that determines which crimes to prosecute.

    Mahan said to deter open air markets and curb the growing number of overdoses, all agencies need to work together. He also said San Jose will need to push for stronger legislation to make treatment more accessible, a new in-treatment center and rally community support, like reporting crimes, to stop the drug crisis from worsening.

    “We are the safest big city in the Bay Area, and we are going to keep it that way,” Mahan said. “If you are coming to San Jose to deal drugs, you will be arrested. If you are using drugs on the street, we will do everything we can to get you into treatment and we will hold you accountable if your addiction is causing you to commit other crimes.”

    Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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