It’s time to refocus our efforts on evidence-based approaches to reducing drug use, preventing overdose, and connecting people to care

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — The tragic loss of life due to accidental drug overdoses is a collective heartbreak that echoes throughout our community and underscores the urgency to address this crisis in a meaningful way.

Recent data from the San Francisco Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal that the city saw a 21 percent increase in fatal overdoses in a 12-month period ending in April, a rate that far surpasses both the state’s and the nation’s figures.[1][2]

The announcement of a new joint law enforcement task force to investigate opioid-linked deaths as homicide, while seemingly well-intentioned, signals a further regressive return to punitive responses to illicit drug use.[3] Historically, this approach has failed to curtail drug use, reduce overdose deaths, or bolster public health. This strategy risks undermining overdose prevention and recovery.[4] Treating opioid deaths similarly to homicides only serves to stigmatize those battling substance use disorders and can discourage individuals from seeking assistance.[5] Such an approach also exacerbates cycles of incarceration without achieving the essential objectives of overdose prevention and saving lives in public health.[6] To be clear, this does not prevent overdose deaths and drug use, nor connect people with substance use disorder to treatment and other resources, it simply penalizes someone for a tragic loss of life after-the-fact.[7]

This trend toward criminalizing substance use and blurring the lines between treatment and punishment is detrimental.[8][9][10] It also neglects the essential need for improved funding in our behavioral healthcare infrastructure. Many behavioral health providers have met extreme challenges in operating at full capacity due to staffing shortages related to inadequate contracts to recruit and retain frontline workers. Investing in our behavioral health continuum of care is crucial, as these skilled providers stand at the forefront of serving people with substance use disorders.

We need an approach that values public health over punitive actions. The City and County of San Francisco and the State of California must re-evaluate these policies and pivot toward community-based, health-centric solutions proven to reduce drug-related harm and save lives. Prioritizing low-threshold, evidence-based, culturally inclusive, and voluntary solutions will undoubtedly lead to better, more sustainable outcomes.

About HealthRIGHT 360:

HealthRIGHT 360 is a non-profit provider of substance use disorder treatment, mental health services, and primary care to over 37,000 Californians annually. HealthRIGHT 360 provides care that is compassionate, non-judgmental, and evidence-based. We provide services, regardless of one’s ability to pay; inspired by our belief that healthcare is a right, not a privilege. Learn more about HealthRIGHT 360 and our programs at

[1] US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts,” September 14, 2023,

[2] Rodda, L. “Accidental Overdose Report, Jan 2023 – September 2023,” OCME Accidental Overdose Reports, Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, October 17, 2023.

[3] “Governor Newsom and San Francisco Leaders Announce New Effort to Investigate Opioid-Linked Deaths,” Office of Governor Gavin Newsom, October 27, 2023,

[4] Dasgupta, Nabarun. “We Can’t Arrest Our Way Out of Overdose: The Drug Bust Paradox,” American Journal of Public Health, June 7, 2023.

[5] Carroll, J., del Pozo, B., Ray, B., Hedden, B., Huynh, P., Korzeniewski, S., Mohler, G., and Victor, G. “Spatiotemporal Analysis Exploring the Effect of Law Enforcement Drug Market Disruptions on Overdose, Indianapolis, Indiana, 2020–2021,” American Journal of Public Health, June 7, 2023.   

[6] Ibid.

[7] Dasgupta, June 2023.

[8] “An Assessment of Fatal and Nonfatal Opioid Overdoses in Massachusetts (2011-2015),” Massachusetts Department of Public Health, August 16, 2017.

[9] “An Assessment of Opioid-Related Deaths in Massachusetts (2013-2014),” Massachusetts Department of Public Health, September 15, 2016.

[10] Beck, J., Miller, C., Tan de Bibiana, J., and Taylor, A. “Overdose Deaths and Jail Incarceration,” Vera Institute of Justice,

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