81,000 people died from drug overdoses from June 2019 to May 2020, according to a recent CDC report titled “Overdose Deaths Accelerating During COVID-19.”

During that time period, deaths due to synthetic opioids, which includes fentanyl, increased 38.4% compared to the previous 12 months, and deaths due to psychostimulants, which includes methamphetamine, increased 34.8%.

More recent national data is not available, but many cities and states report that these trends have continued since May.

PERF spoke with local and federal law enforcement officials in two cities – New York City and San Francisco – about these issues.



-- After not being much of a factor in their cities’ drug markets, methamphetamine has become much more prevalent in both New York and San Francisco.

-- Still, opioids – in particular fentanyl – remain the drug of choice in both cities. In New York, the price of fentanyl did not increase as much as other drugs during the pandemic, indicating that supplies have remained plentiful.

-- Delays in the court system due to the pandemic are a significant obstacle to holding offenders accountable and keeping them off the street.  

-- Opioids, methamphetamine and other drugs are increasingly entering the U.S. through mail deliveries from China into large airports.

-- San Francisco has seen a surge in overdose deaths, especially in the Tenderloin district, but the numbers would be far higher if police officers did not carry and administer Narcan.

-- Local/federal partnerships, such as San Francisco’s FIT initiative, can help address rising drug sales and associated violence.

-- San Francisco is using civil injunctions to keep high-level dealers out of the neighborhoods where most drug sales occur.



Special Agent in Charge Ray Donovan, DEA New York Division

A 214% increase in methamphetamine seizures is really new for us. Methamphetamine doesn’t really have a hold in the market in New York. It’s really been an opioid market -- heroin and fentanyl, -- as well as cocaine and marijuana. But meth really never took hold in the city until now.

In 2020 we seized 767 kilos of meth in New York. A lot of the drugs that come into New York City are destined for other states. New York is a hub, and often drugs come into New York and go up to Maine, over to Ohio, or as far south as West Virginia. But this is the really the first time we’ve seen methamphetamine seizures.

It could be an emerging market. It could be a sign that Mexican cartels have stockpiled methamphetamine, and as states started to open up more and more, it got easier to transport and smuggle methamphetamine into the tri-state area. It could be that they’re trying to grow the market here.

It’s definitely something we’re taking notice of. Traditionally the methamphetamine market in the tri-state area is southern New Jersey – Camden and the Philadelphia area – and up in northern New York – Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse. It was never really a major drug in New York City.

A 59% increase in fentanyl seizures is interesting too. The drug of choice in New York City right now is opioids, with fentanyl being the biggest bang for the buck. In the last two weeks alone, we’ve seized 100 kilos of fentanyl in New York City. To put that in perspective, in all of 2020 we seized 443 kilos, and in 2019 it was 254 kilos. So we’re starting to see a lot more fentanyl coming in.

The reason for that is the demand. Demand never went away, even in the midst of COVID. There’s really an unlimited supply, and the Mexican cartels are starting to produce more and more fentanyl.

Like every other business or organization, early on when COVID hit New York City, we saw a substantial drop-off in the cartels’ ability to move drugs into New York City. The demand was still there, so the price went up. But the fentanyl continued to flow. Of all the illicit narcotics we seize, the price of fentanyl went up the least. That tells us that it continued to make its way into New York City, even in the middle of COVID. As the states started to open up more and more, the amount of fentanyl started to increase.

We seized $170 million in cash and assets last year. That was because the proceeds from narcotics were being stockpiled. It wasn’t easy to move money out of the city or the country, so we were able to seize larger sums of money than before.


Assistant Chief Chris McCormack, NYPD

We’ve put in a lot of resources and done a lot of great work to address this violence that’s kicked up during the pandemic. But what’s really hurting us is the proffers. It’s taking months – 6, 7, 8 months – and we’re still not even into the proffer stage in court, which would move cases along and lock up more people quicker.

So we still have more violent people out on the street, and that’s one of the biggest things that’s hurting us with the violence.

In New York City the drug market is wide open. There are more and more dealers out on the street right now. Once people get onto fentanyl, there’s nothing better than fentanyl. They don’t want heroin. They don’t want heroin with fentanyl. They want fentanyl, and that’s it.

It’s coming in more and more. We’re seeing a tremendous amount of ketamine, crystal meth, and fentanyl coming in at the ports from China every day. HSI (Homeland Security Investigations) says that about 100,000 pieces of mail come in from China every day through JFK airport, and about 10,000 of them have some kind of fentanyl in them.

I know we’re up significantly in drug-related homicides and shootings. In June, the police commissioner asked all our partners to come in, and we asked for additional help. DEA, FBI, and HSI all stepped up and gave us that help. I think it’s worked out great. I think it had a great impact on Brooklyn so far. We’ve brought almost 50 people to the U.S. Attorney’s office for federal charges on violence related to drugs. The only thing that’s slowing us is trying to get to phase 2 with the proffers.



Special Agent in Charge Daniel Comeaux, DEA San Francisco Division

Methamphetamine in huge out here. This year we’ve already seized more than half of what we seized in all of last year. One thing we’re seeing with the cartels is that they’re bumping up the price of methamphetamine, which is pretty interesting. The price was originally so low, and I think the plan was to first get people hooked, then raise the price.

The unfortunate thing with that price raise is that I think the West Coast is probably about to see a little more violence. They’re almost doubling the price right now, and I think that will bring some more violence along with it.

The purity is staying the same. This methamphetamine coming across from the Mexican border is almost 100% pure.

The San Francisco area is hooked on fentanyl right now. We have an operation going on with San Francisco PD that has led to an enormous number of federal arrests. Our U.S. Attorney is taking everything federal, even user amounts. That’s a big thing out here also.


Assistant Chief Michael Redmond, San Francisco Police Department

We’re definitely seeing a rise in violence. The city is broken into 10 police districts, and our Tenderloin police district is our most impacted. It’s an area where the demand overwhelms the supply. We recently had five people shot in a drug-related shooting between two different groups over control of an area. Most of our shootings in that area are drug-related. We have seen an increase in gang violence in other parts of the city.

Our homicides were up 17% last year. Our shootings were up almost 25% last year. And the start of this year isn’t good.  

The total number of overdose deaths in San Francisco last year was 699, compared to 441 in 2019. Most of those were from our Tenderloin district or had a nexus to someone buying drugs down there. Like officers citywide, the officers in the Tenderloin carry Narcan. They used Narcan about 211 times last year, compared to 135 times in 2019. Some of those people didn’t make it, but I’m told the majority of those were saves. So deaths would be into the 800s or 900s if we didn’t have Narcan. It’s a huge topic in the city. People are comparing those deaths to COVID deaths and homicides.

We saw the impact in the Tenderloin and another neighboring district, South of Market, so we started the FIT initiative, which stands for the Federal Initiative for the Tenderloin. It’s a partnership between us and a number of federal agencies. The main players are the U.S. Attorney, DEA, Homeland Security Investigations, and the FBI. We also partnered with ATF to start a CGIC (Crime Gun Intelligence Center) about a year and a half ago.

Through that initiative, we’ve looked at a lot of the drug sales. Even possession cases have gone federal. We’ve also brought gun cases, robberies, human trafficking, and child pornography. This started in August 2019, and about 230 defendants have been charged.

We decentralized our narcotics unit and embedded them into the Tenderloin with the officers. When COVID started, we backed off buy/busts and certain street-level operations to learn more about the pandemic. But we hit the ground running with our federal partners after several months.

We have an issue here with our district attorney, the no-bail system, and the criminal justice system issues that everyone is experiencing. In San Francisco we always experience that, but it’s on a totally different level now. So we’re really grateful to our federal partners for working with us on this successful FIT program.

We brought our narcotics unit back to a centralized focus, and away from a lot of the drug dealing arrests on the street to focus on the more high-level stuff. They’re working with DEA on surveillance and search warrants. A lot of the dealers in the Tenderloin don’t live there. A lot of people from the East Bay cities travel in to do their business here.

We brought in our city attorney’s office, and they did 28 civil injunctions, very similar to gang injunctions. They did it for 28 high-level narcotics dealers identified by my officers and DEA who had numerous arrests. When these people come into the Tenderloin, they’re in violation of the narcotics injunction, and officers can take action right away.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.