Opinion // Editorials

SF struggles with surge in drug overdose deaths

San Francisco crime may be dropping in most categories, but there’s a glaring sign of trouble on the city streets. Deaths blamed on heroin and fentanyl overdoses are soaring, more than doubling from last year. That deadly surge needs the full attention of law enforcement and medical authorities.

Such overdoses once were largely a distant problem, killing thousands in the Midwest and Northeast. But it’s arrived here with deadly force with 290 deaths last year compared to 134 the year before. Heroin doses are being supercharged with lethal fentanyl doses, poisoning addicts who are unfamiliar with the mixture. A painkiller, fentanyl is up 100 times more potent than similar opioids, making just a few sandy grains a fatal additive.

The city’s outreach efforts aren’t enough. The option of indoor injection sites where overdoses could be monitored has stalled for legal reasons. Scores of addicts who have taken the heroin-fentanyl mix have been revived by health workers with counteracting drugs, but the totals remain daunting. Existing addiction treatment needs to be better matched to the new threat, according to Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents the Tenderloin and South of Market, ground zero for the problem.

It’s also a street-crime issue. Federal and local law enforcement are cracking down on drug sales but finding that cartels are moving into the market. That’s meant more fentanyl for users to seek out even when it’s not blended with heroin.

City health experts are hunting down more information on the deaths. That search is to give the city a better understanding of where and when overdoses take place, a first step in handling the scourge. For now, drug overdose deaths aren’t tallied as closely as other fatalities.

San Francisco is facing a rapid-fire challenge. Before the death toll rises any higher, it must find a way to stem the flow of fentanyl and treat addicts who are tempted to try it.

This commentary is from The Chronicle’s editorial board. We invite you to express your views in a letter to the editor. Please submit your letter via our online form: SFChronicle.com/letters.

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