San Francisco officials deny direct involvement in a controversial program, funded by private sources, that provides free alcohol, cannabis, and cigarettes to homeless people living in the city’s hotels during the Covid-19 outbreak. After news about the special deliveries was leaked and caused embarrassment on social media, the city’s Department of Public Health issued a statement claiming that “rumors that guests of San Francisco’s alternative housing program are receiving taxpayer-funded deliveries of alcohol, cannabis and tobacco are false.”
Except they’re not false. DPH, which administers and oversees the program, is staffed by city workers, including doctors, nurse practitioners, nurses, social workers, and security personnel. The department manages, stores, and distributes the substances. Employee time is involved. Thus, the program is financed by taxpayers, even if an outside group provides some of the funding. According to DPH spokesperson Jenna Lane, the philanthropists who helped purchase the substances wish to remain anonymous.
The program’s primary purpose is to keep homeless people, the majority of whom are addicts, out of harm’s way during the pandemic. By getting their substance of choice delivered, the thinking goes, the guests may be more apt to remain in their government-funded rooms. Another purpose of the program is to protect the public against the spread of coronavirus. The city doesn’t want homeless people who should be staying in their rooms roaming the neighborhood in search of the substances, potentially infecting others.
“Managed alcohol and tobacco use makes it possible to increase the number of guests who stay in isolation and quarantine and, notably, protects the health of people who might otherwise need hospital care for life-threatening alcohol withdrawal,” says Lane.
Lane concedes that the provision of substances is not necessarily meant to save people from dangerous, unsupervised detoxification. The homeless are screened to determine what substances they would prefer to have on hand and might be uncomfortable without. “Many isolation and quarantine guests tell us they use these substances daily,” says Lane, “and this period in our care has allowed some people to connect for the first time with addiction treatment and harm reduction therapy.” But DPH has not made clear which addiction-recovery services are offered and whether anyone has used them. In any case, “harm-reduction therapy” is about reducing the negative consequences associated with drug use, not about recovering from addiction.
The details of the free-substances program—to the extent that they have been disclosed—are fascinating. Alcohol is served with meals (those, too, are provided at no cost to guests), and the DPH, in consultation with doctors, determines how much each person gets. Does a physician write a script for a daily dose of five Sierra Nevadas, seven shots of Tito’s, or a fine bottle of Sangiovese? And who does the shopping? The DPH doesn’t say.
DPH workers assist in purchasing cannabis for guests who prefer that drug. Ostensibly, the purpose is for medical use, though physicians are prohibited from prescribing cannabis, and insurance doesn’t cover it. In California, the average price for an ounce of median-grade marijuana is $207.
Guests who enjoy a good smoke receive cigarettes, divided up by medical staff and handed out in Ziploc-type bags. The number they’re allotted is “determined by physicians who calculate the minimum possible to achieve the public health goals of isolation and quarantine,” says Lane. When questioned about whether these guests receive premium or generic brands, Lane said that doctors determine the quality. Almost all hotel rooms in San Francisco are normally smoke-free, but these rules have apparently been suspended, at least for the city-funded guests.
One would think that DPH would require that guests gifted such substances remain quarantined, but the city is merely requesting that they do so. “The City of San Francisco is asking guests of isolation and quarantine sites to remain in their rooms,” says Lane. “DPH is managing the use of these substances so a guest does not have to leave to obtain them.” Security guards aren’t monitoring doors, and no one is locked in.
The program ensures the protection of neither the homeless hotel guests nor the general public. San Francisco taxpayers are footing the bill for people to drink, smoke, and get high while living in a hotel for free. It’s no surprise that the Department of Public Health and its mysterious donors sought to keep details of the program on the down-low.