SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — Ricci Wynne remembers the day his friend suggested trying a new drug. It was 2018 and Wynne was addicted to heroin. “Someone said we could get ‘something’ from these guys,” Wynne said.

The guys were posing as “China White” heroin sellers. What they were really selling, was fentanyl — a cheaper, more powerful, and more deadly synthetic opioid. Wynne, who was a drug dealer himself at the time, had never heard of fentanyl before. “I said, ‘I don’t want that. I want heroin.”

That same year, fentanyl spread across San Francisco’s street drug scene like wildfire with devastating consequences. The Department of Public Health confirmed Wynne’s timeline, writing, “Fentanyl first became prevalent in local drug supplies in 2018.”

“I didn’t hear too much about it until people started dying off. My friend snorted (fentanyl-laced cocaine), it killed him. I lost a cousin last year, he thought he was taking a pill,” Wynne told KRON4.

Just two years later, the city’s fatal drug overdose rate spiked to an all-time high, with 725 deaths. It was 2020 at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. City leaders realized the fentanyl overdose epidemic was killing more San Francisco residents than the COVID virus.

“The city’s drug crisis is more fatal than COVID-19. San Francisco has become synonymous with open-air drug markets and increasing rates of fentanyl addiction,” wrote TogetherSF Action, a civic engagement group. “The drug crisis … is wreaking havoc.”

According to data from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, San Francisco recorded 640 overdose deaths in 2021 and 638 in 2022.

Overdose deaths skyrocketed in San Francisco between 2018-2020. (Data courtesy SFDPH)

“The decline in deaths is encouraging and shows that we can save lives with the programs and policies we are implementing in San Francisco,” said Dr. Jeffrey Hom, who oversees the Office of Overdose Prevention for the city’s Department of Public Health.

Without Narcan, a life-saving opioid overdose antidote, deaths would have likely climbed well over 1,000 last year. The San Francisco AIDS Foundation, which collaborates with the San Francisco Department of Public Health, distributed more than 40,000 doses of Narcan and reported 5,127 overdose reversals.

The Mayor’s Office responded to the fentanyl epidemic with a “harm-reduction” approach for addicted users, and the District Attorney’s Office pledged to prosecute drug dealers.

District Attorney Brooke Jenkins recently wrote on Twitter, “Working to end open air drug markets that are wreaking havoc on our communities is a top priority for our city. Our residents, businesses, and visitors are rightfully asking for the City to do more. I believe in us. I believe we will help make SF a safer place.”

Between July of 2022 – February of 2023, Jenkins’ office filed 480 felony narcotics sales cases and 394 accused drug dealers were arraigned, compared to 264 cases filed and 217 arraigned for the same time period under former district attorney Chesa Boudin. Boudin was booted from office in a recall election, ushering in Jenkins, who promised to go after drug dealers.

Mayor London Breed declared a Tenderloin Emergency Initiative at the beginning of 2022 and opened the Tenderloin Linkage Center with the goal of reducing overdoses. The center was highly controversial because it allowed drug use on site, and has since closed.

On Tuesday, the SF Board of Supervisors approved a proposal to allow similar sites to open with private, rather than public, funding.

The majority of San Francisco’s fatal overdoses occur in two crime-plagued neighborhoods with large unsheltered populations: the Tenderloin and SoMa, according to city data. Wynne lives in SoMA, works for a drug rehab center, is four-years-clean, and documents disturbing realities on the streets.

Wynne said the city has made no progress for stemming the tide of fentanyl supplies, nor helping addicts find roads to recovery. “They put you out on the street with a bag of Narcan, and say ‘good luck,’ which is ridiculous. If you look at the streets, the OD rates, there’s no way you can say ‘it’s working.'”

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Wynne and other Twitter-savvy neighborhood watchdogs say drug dealing in still rampant. One drug dealer sets up right across from Wynne’s apartment complex.

“I took a video of him selling drugs. And that guy’s still out there selling, it’s crazy. San Francisco has never been this bad. You walk through the Civic Center at nighttime and it’s like another world,” Wynne said.

While overdose deaths skyrocketed, the number of addicts entering rehabs for substance use disorders dramatically dropped. Data shows admissions to the city’s rehab programs declined from 10,273 in 2015, to 6,440 in 2021. The number of unique persons served also declined, from 6,910 in 2015 to 4,341 in 2021.  

San Francisco’s fentanyl epidemic made national headlines at the end of 2022 when a baby overdosed on fentanyl while playing on a grassy area in Moscone Park in the Marina, an upscale neighborhood. “Our baby went to the ER today and barely survived because he found and ingested fentanyl while playing,” the baby’s father wrote.

Looking into 2023, drug overdose deaths were higher this January, 61, than last January, 50.

“Fentanyl continues to disrupt and destroy lives in our city,” Mayor Breed said.