SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — Fentanyl is known as a “silent killer.” The powerful opioid has quietly stolen the lives of hundreds of San Franciscans this year.

Governor Gavin Newsom said drug dealers who put fentanyl into the hands of overdose victims are “poison peddlers.” They profit from the desperation and misery of opioid addicts. They slip the deadly drug into fake pills masked as Xanax and Adderall, ultimately poisoning a victim who would have never knowingly used fentanyl.

San Francisco’s fentanyl epidemic has no end in sight and overdose numbers are continuing to surge. The city’s mayor and top law enforcement officers said it’s time to stop treating fentanyl deaths simply as tragedies. The deaths will be investigated as homicides, and drug dealers linked to fatal overdoses could stand trial for murder, Newsom and city leaders announced Friday.

“The opioid crisis has claimed too many, and fentanyl traffickers must be held accountable
including, as appropriate, for murder,” Newsom said.

The city is launching a new task force at the beginning of 2024 dedicated to investigating opioid-linked deaths and poisonings as homicide cases. The new task force will include personnel from the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD), the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office (SFDA), and the California National Guard (CalGuard).

If there is evidence uncovered at the overdose scene that could be used by investigators to track the drugs back to a specific dealer, task force members will investigate and prosecute the case as a homicide.

The task force will also process intelligence to map out supplies of fentanyl funneled through large crime syndicates.

Mayor London Breed said she’s putting all of the city’s drug dealers on notice. “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,” Breed said.

“Traditionally, overdoses have not been investigated as murders,” District Attorney Brooke Jenkins said. “Now, 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. Drug dealers and traffickers have caused the death of far too many.”

San Francisco has seen an alarming rise in fentanyl-linked deaths. An average of two people die every day in the city from drug overdoses. In the Tenderloin, SFPD seized 107 kilos of fentanyl and arrested 776 suspected drug dealers in 2023.

San Francisco will not be the first county in California to prosecute dealers as killers. Up in Placer County, Virgil Xavier Bordner was convicted of manslaughter for the 2020 fentanyl overdose death of Zach Didier. Didier was a 17-year-old high school student.

Also in Placer County, Nathaniel Cabacungan pleaded guilty to homicide for the death of a 15-year-old Roseville girl, J. Wolfe. Cabacungan, 20, supplied Wolf with fake M-30 pills that resulted in her fentanyl overdose death. He was sentenced earlier this October to serve 15 years to life in prison.

Following Cabacungan’s sentencing, Placer County District Attorney Morgan Gire said, “Our message is simple: do not sell this poison in Placer County. This historic sentence affirms our county’s commitment to holding fentanyl dealers accountable.”

San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju said prosecuting drug dealers for murder will not solve the city’s fentanyl crisis.

Raju said, “Since the opioid public health crisis began in our city about three years ago, law enforcement and city leaders have formed numerous task forces that have enacted War on Drugs tactics, and overdoses have only increased. In fact, San Francisco is on track to reach a record number of overdoses this year.”

The public defender continued, “Relying on police and prosecutions to arrest and cage our way out of a public health crisis remains in direct conflict with decades of social and scientific data that show that these tactics do not work.  Threatening to charge people with murder is unfortunately likely to result in more overdoses, as people will be afraid to call for help.”