What’s Fueling the Bay Area’s Street Addiction Crisis?

Leighton Woodhouse discusses open-air drug markets and booming retail theft industry.
What’s Fueling the Bay Area’s Street Addiction Crisis?
Leighton Woodhouse, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker, and co-founder of Public, in Oakland, California on Oct. 31, 2023. (Tal Atzmon/The Epoch Times)
Jeff Minick
In a recent episode of “American Thought Leaders,” host Jan Jekielek talks with Leighton Woodhouse, an investigative journalist, documentary filmmaker, and native of Berkeley, California. Mr. Woodhouse has been documenting the “street addiction crisis” engulfing the Bay Area and the political culture and policies fueling it. He is also the co-founder of the “Public” publication on Substack with Michael Shellenberger and a key investigator of the Twitter Files.
Jan Jekielek: The ideology emanating from Berkeley and from San Francisco is that all drugs should be legal.
Leighton Woodhouse: People tend to think of the Bay Area as very progressive, maybe even radically Left-wing, and that’s true. That misses a big element of the politics here, because it’s also a libertarian culture.

This Left-wing libertarianism accounts for the fact that we allow open-air drug dealing without criminal enforcement. We allow people severely addicted to drugs to go untreated and just camp out on the streets. We simply have stopped prosecuting crimes in Oakland. You just can’t govern a society that way.

Mr. Jekielek: Give us a picture of how things exist now in the Bay Area, maybe starting with Oakland.
Mr. Woodhouse: I don’t like to use the term homelessness because that implies that people don’t have a home. A lot of the people living on the streets in San Francisco and Oakland have loved ones who have doors open for them.

The reason people are sleeping on the streets is because if they relocate to some place that’s not five minutes from a drug dealer, when the drug lets off and they start getting dope sick, they get to the point that they want to die. They need to be within walking distance of somebody who can resupply them to take that sickness away. It’s a street addiction crisis. It’s not a homelessness crisis.

Mr. Jekielek: What are the laws creating this general environment? How bad is the situation?
Mr. Woodhouse: It’s bad. Proposition 47 was actually passed by voters in 2014. It sounded great on paper. It said, “Mass incarceration is a big problem. Why are we prosecuting these petty thefts?”

The unintended consequence of Proposition 47 is that now shoplifting is effectively legal and is an industry. If you’re a drug addict in San Francisco, you need to raise 50 bucks, maybe 70 bucks a day to support your habit. You get that money from petty crimes.

There are layers to this industry. There are fences who operate in San Francisco who put out text messages to all the shoplifters, called boosters, who are drug addicts. They say, “I’m in the market for cough medicine and laundry detergent and frozen steaks.” People get the message, and then they go and boost those specific products. They steal what they need for their next fix and sell it to a fence. The fence usually sells it to a higher-level fence, and then there’s a higher-level fence above him.

At the top level, there are wholesale fences that are running this multi-million-dollar industry. Proposition 47 has enabled that entire organized retail theft industry to thrive.

Mr. Jekielek: We have this bizarre retail theft industry. Drug dealing is legal, basically. What else is there?
Mr. Woodhouse: San Francisco is much more about organized crime, both cartel-backed drug dealing and the retail theft industry, which is driven by the addicts who are supplied by those cartel drug dealers.

Oakland is mostly self-organized crews of thieves who just drive around doing crimes: car break-ins, armed car-jackings, and home invasions. This district attorney, Pamela Price, essentially doesn’t believe in prosecuting criminals. She does everything she can to reduce the sentence.

Mr. Jekielek: If this is left unchecked, you’re talking about full-on anarchy.
Mr. Woodhouse: People are getting armed. This problem is going to get much worse because now the people committing the crimes are getting shot for it. There have already been gunfights in downtown Oakland in the middle of the day in response to car burglaries.
Mr. Jekielek: You’ve mentioned politicians being captured by activist interests.
Mr. Woodhouse: With the homelessness problem in San Francisco, there’s a thick layer of homeless services organizations and advocacy groups which get city contracts. It’s a billion-dollar industry. They have responsibilities to meet their payroll and to pay rent. They have all the needs of any organization with a professional staff.

There’s a built-in interest not to fix the problem. If you’re employed by an organization whose bottom-line interests align with keeping the problem going, it’s very easy to adhere to a political ideology that justifies and encourages all those decisions, an ideology that says, “It’s wrong to arrest drug dealers, and we shouldn’t coerce anybody into care. If you want to use drugs, that’s your right. It’s just a lifestyle choice.”

That’s a happy convenience that keeps street addiction going and this industry thriving. The more this industry thrives, the more government contracts it gets. The more money they get, the more political capital they have to get favored officials elected and to exert influence over those officials.

Mr. Jekielek: You’re painting a dark picture here, Leighton. Is there light coming from anywhere?
Mr. Woodhouse: Normal people in Oakland are not radical leftists. If they’re Democratic voters and you ask them their policy preferences, they would recite back some liberal points of view on most of the checkbox issues, but they’re spending their day thinking about their families, their jobs, and whatever their hobbies are. They’re normal people, and they respond to things in a normal way. Even in Oakland, if you have criminals running around breaking into cars and robbing homes, you want more cops.

There’s a point where the activist’s agenda starts to become a political liability. We’re rapidly reaching that point. I have a lot of faith in the normies. The more empowered normal people are, the better off our lives will be.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.
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