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Healing ‘San Fransicko’

Michael Shellenberger's new book appropriately diagnoses the drug problem on the West Coast, but there are better solutions.

San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities, by Michael Shellenberger (Harper, 2021), 416 pages.

Michael’s Shellenberger’s San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities is both the most captivating and the most depressing book of 2021, a year ripe for depressing books. It’s the definitive account of the crisis of West Coast cities, a crisis that was decades in the making, with no end in sight.

The now normalized spectacle of syringes in the gutter, bodies across the sidewalk, and cat-size rats darting from one encampment to another fanning out through our cities is not, as progressive pundits and politicians assert, an expected manifestation of income inequality, but the civilization-destroying outcome of their own policies. It’s best exemplified by the dead end that is the normalization of recreational drug use, which left San Francisco with the 2021 record of two drug poisoning deaths every three days, and the highest rate of drug poisonings in the nation. Shellenberger, who once identified as an anarchist and supported the liberal agenda on drugs, has amassed all kinds of receipts to show why the San Francisco approach doesn’t work.

Contrary to the cherished progressive myth, Ronald Reagan did not create homelessness in America. He did not singlehandedly throw the mentally ill onto the streets, or defund the housing programs for the indigent. In reality, Shellenberger explains, the 40th president of the United States simply moved the funds from government-constructed properties into Section 8 vouchers that gave families the flexibility to choose their own dwellings. As for closing publicly operated mental health facilities, that was done in the context of the nationwide midcentury deinstitutionalization movement. Shellenberger spotlights the French postmodernist philosopher Michel Foucault, whose 1961 work Madness and Civilization was one of the foundational texts of the movement, which saw psychiatric treatment as a form of social control and all but put an end to involuntary confinement of the mentally ill in the United States.

That the “homelessness” problem that California is facing today is much larger than merely untreated mental illness is obvious to anyone who still dares to walk in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. The drug addiction component of the crisis is undeniable, and Shellenberger explains how and why the situation in the Democrat supermajority state deteriorated sharply after the passage of Proposition 47 in 2014. Prop 47 reduced criminal penalties across the board, including turning drug possession crimes into misdemeanors, punishable by only a fine. As a result, law enforcement no longer had a mechanism to force addicts into treatments.

The crisis was a long time coming, and there is a reason San Francisco was hit the hardest. Over the last half a century, the local enforcement of drug laws has been spotty, and the attitude towards substance abuse took the shape of enabling. If addicts themselves, Shellenberger observes, want tough love, or at least are honest about their own corrupt motives, local politicians and non-profits think of them as victims who deserve only sympathy. What the city offers to them is “harm reduction,” or attempts to keep a user alive long enough perhaps to muster the will to quit. Aside from the fact that the removal of taboos accompanying such laissez-faire treatment creates more users, one of the recovering addicts the author interviewed objected to the approach because she sees it as a waste of years of life.

Although they keep alluding to places like Portugal or Vancouver as successful examples, San Francisco’s local leaders painted themselves a fairy dust picture of how “harm reduction” successfully works in the real world. The trendiest idea among the ruling elites is building a “supervised injection” center where junkies can go to get high under the watchful eye of trained personnel who can revive them when necessary. Just how safe such set up would be in practice is a matter of dispute considering that fentanyl dominates the local drug market. More importantly, there is not a place in the civilized world that facilitates drug addicts in maintaining their addiction. Amsterdam, and Portugal, as Shellenberger tells us, both use police to break up open air drug markets, and force addicts into recovery programs. Contrary to the claims of the advocates of legalization, heroin maintenance is offered only for those who don’t respond to methadone.

With “supervised injection” centers chatter among the city elites, it doesn’t look like San Francisco has reached rock bottom yet. And even if, or more likely when, such centers fail to put a dent into the city’s skyrocketing number of fatal drug poisonings, I fully expect another counter-intuitive approach will emerge—perhaps free dope, tested for purity, dispatched by the government. Drug legalization, like socialism, never fails; it is just that it hasn’t yet been done right.

Never mind that drugs are already quite legal here, considering that street corner drug dealers, many of them illegal aliens from Honduras, face no meaningful consequences for poisoning Americans. They are known to the authorities, and in the rare event of being picked up by police, they are quickly released. As Shellenberger reminds us, in the view of the blood heir to the Weather Underground domestic terrorist group and San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, these drug dealers are mere children who deserve our compassion.

I part with Shellenberger when it comes to some of his solutions. The author proposes taking the issue of “homelessness” away from the City by the Bay’s failed government, and creating a statewide agency in charge of housing and rehabilitation. Unfortunately, California’s state government is no less dysfunctional than San Francisco’s, and such a move might end up expanding the problem by transferring the homeless to locales that so far successfully fend off the scourge of addiction, and criminality on their streets.

A better solution for the City of San Francisco is an audit all of its numerous nonprofits. A lion’s share of their income comes from the local government, and the ones that work with the homeless are all required to teach “harm reduction.” Shellenberger documents what that means in practice: needle giveaways, and other forms of enabling. One of the nonprofits, Glide Memorial, ostensibly some sort of religious enterprise, recently found itself the center of a scandal when it published Drug Used Union pamphlets advocating for “safe” enjoyment of dope. There is no reason why San Francisco taxpayers should subsidize any of this activism.

What needs to happen beyond the audit is as obvious as it is difficult to hear: We need a new war on drugs. The experiment with permissiveness has failed. It created misery, fear, and death. It turned one of America’s most charming cities, the Jewel on the Pacific, into a desolate zombieland. Local activist and citizen journalist Adam Mesnick observed that San Francisco is the place where junkies come to die.

The reasons nobody wants to hear about a war on drugs are cultural. On the left, drugs have long been accepted as a part of a crypto political agenda—Shellenberger describes how it all unfolded in San Francisco in 1967. On the right, there is the “libertarian on drugs” constituency that makes no sense whatsoever. The libertarian economic agenda is aimed at creating the best product at the best price. In the case of drugs, it means cheap fentanyl.

I will gladly assume the title of “prohibitionist” which drug legalization advocates like to assign to people like me. I am against a ban on alcohol because its use is traditional, and because most people are responsible with the substance. Having said that, it’s worth noting that, as Shellenberger has shown, alcohol use plummeted during Prohibition, and so did alcohol-related deaths. It’s also worth noting that the United States has recently phased out the highly addictive, though not psychologically crippling, tobacco products. There is no reason for heroin to be as easily accessible as alcohol when cigarettes are nearly illegal.

We banned addictive substances for a reason, and now we are running an experiment to rediscover that reason. We need to turn off the spigot: undo the disastrous effects of Prop 47, institute and enforce stiff penalties for dealing drugs, end sanctuary city practices, refund police departments, incentivize law enforcement professionals, build rehabs, and coerce addicts to enter them.

The war on drugs is a forever war. Human beings are mind-altering creatures, and the temptation to indulge in illegal substances will never go away, just like other kinds of crime will always exist. It doesn’t mean that we should despair and surrender to heroin. Michael Shellenberger shows what happens when we do.

Katya Sedgwick is a writer in the San Francisco Bay area. You can follow her on Twitter @KatyaSedgwick.