Addict’s mother slams San Francisco drug policies: ‘Let police arrest my son’

by Heather Robinson

From The New York Post

Mothers Against Drug Deaths co-founder Jacqui Berlinn stands before the damning billboard her organization erected in San Francisco’s touristy Union Square nabe. NY Post photo composite


When her son Corey was 7 years old, Jacqui Berlinn accidentally dropped a piggy bank on her big toe.

“I almost threw up from the pain,” recalled Berlinn, co-founder of Mothers Against Drug Deaths (MADD), a San Francisco-based activist group. “Corey was right there holding me as I cried. He went and got me ice and started kissing my toes and saying, ‘Should I call 911?’ He was taking care of me.”

Chosen by his teachers to show the new kids around school because, according to Berlinn, “he was always the super sweet kid, and stood up for the underdog,” today Corey, 31, is a drug-addict on the streets of San Francisco. His mother and other mothers of drug-addicted children have made it their mission to battle city and state policies they say discourage their children and other addicts from getting sober.

On April 4, they erected a massive billboard in San Francisco’s Union Square — a fashionable tourist district — that reads, “Famous the world over for our brains, beauty, and now, dirt cheap fentanyl” in block letters against a backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay at sunset.

The bottom of the billboard reads, “It’s time to close San Francisco’s open-air drug markets” and lists their organization’s Web site,


Mothers Against Drug Deaths (MADD) founder Jacqui Berlinn’s son is a drug addict and is currently living on the streets of San Francisco. Pete Thompson for NY Post


“We want [San Francisco Mayor] London Breed to shut down the open-air drug market that is causing death and crime in this city,” said MADD co-founder Gina McDonald, 52, herself a recovered addict whose daughter Sam, 24, is in treatment in Alameda County for drug addiction.

Along with co-founder Michelle Leopold, Berlinn and McDonald have raised $25,000 — their own funds combined with donations from 50 individuals — to erect the billboard.

While drug dealing has gone on for years in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, the city’s “open-air drug markets” — the colloquial term for where drugs are dealt and used in full view of the public — truly exploded about two years ago at the onset of the pandemic, said Randy Shaw, executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic.


Berlinn says she wishes police would arrest her son, seen here as a young child, rather than give him free access to drug paraphernalia. Jacqui Berlinn


Shaw estimates that San Francisco has about six or seven open-air drug markets. While the city “does intensive cleaning” of them to reduce the worst of the filth, he says “dealers drop trash” — and danger and despair proliferate.

“I’ve never seen such little police presence as in the last two years,” said Shaw, author of “The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco.

“If they were selling cigarettes they’d be arrested for illegal vending, but they’re selling very deadly drugs and the police don’t bother them.”


MADD mothers warn that San Francisco’s open-air drug markets are not just a public-safety emergency for the addicts, but to the general public. Roman Savi


The MADD mothers worry that fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid which can be 100 times as strong as morphine, could easily come into contact with a child or a pet if they touch foils or other paraphernalia used by addicts, which blow freely across sidewalks.

“A child could end up overdosing if they get it on their hands and touch their face, or a dog might lick it,” said Berlinn.

Fentanyl has led to a sharp increase in overdose deaths in the city, according to the San Francisco Department of Public Health, which reported that 441 San Franciscans died due to overdose in 2019. In 2021, 645 people were lost to drugs, and in the first two months of this year, there have been 98 overdose deaths, according to the latest figures from the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s office.


Discarded needles tainted with deadly fentanyl could easily harm neighborhood kids. AP


The MADD moms are raising the billboard now because they are “desperate” to help their children, who they say are being harmed by the city’s misguided efforts to fight open-air drug use. They say a linkage center, created in January by Breed for addicts to connect to services and get clean needles and other drug paraphernalia, has only exacerbated the problem.

“It started off with Mayor Breed declaring a state of emergency because open-air drug markets were out of control,” said Berlinn. “We were excited when she opened the linkage center. But the linkage center has become like a supervised [drug] consumption site.

“The clean needles part I agree with,” added Berlinn, pointing out that it can save lives. But she said she would rather see her son Corey arrested instead of being given drug paraphernalia and allowed to abuse drugs freely.


Many blame San Francisco Mayor London Breed for not shutting down the open-air drug markets. AP


“I’ve told the police, ‘If you see my son and can find a way to arrest him, please do.’”

Recently she learned that police in the Oakland, Ca., suburb of Mountain View found Corey sleeping on a park bench and saved him from grievous injury and possibly death by pressuring him to go to the hospital for a drug-induced infection in his arm.

“They gave him a choice between jail or the hospital,” she said. “The police encouraged him to get the medical attention he needed and I am grateful to them.”

Corey called her not long afterward. It was the first contact she had had with him in months. He told her he knew people who had lost their thumbs, and their legs below the knee, from drug-related infections.

“He told me he is proud of me for what I’m doing,” said Berlinn, and that he thinks drug use should not be taking place out in the open for children to see.

In addition to shutting down the drug markets, MADD wants California officials to offer universal psychiatry for the drug-addicted and mentally ill homeless, and to advocate for basic shelter for all — but, in a tough love approach, force addicts to commit to rehabilitation if they want to qualify for an apartment.

Breed released a statement last week responding to the MADD billboard, saying she agrees open-air drug dealing needs to stop, that 20 additional police officers have been assigned to the Tenderloin, and that this year so far, police have seized four times the amount of fentanyl as they did during the same period last year.


Jacqui Berlinn (right) co-founded MADD with Gina McDonald, who is a former addict. Jacqui Berlinn


But Berlinn, 56, a legal process clerk for Alameda County, claims San Francisco hobbles police from prosecuting drug abuse and drug dealing.

Since the passage of Prop 47 in 2014, drug possession crimes that were once felonies are now considered misdemeanors in California. Even drug possession with clear intent to sell has been decriminalized, so police no longer have an incentive to bust drug dealers. As a result, California police departments have radically scaled back their narcotics units, a law enforcement source told The Post.

Berlinn said she and a friend recently went looking for a young addict on behalf of his mother. They eventually found him running naked in front of a Safeway, on a cold night, “screaming that he was God.” When they alerted police, “they said they couldn’t arrest him if he wasn’t hurting himself or hurting anyone else because they’d have to chase him and wrestle him into a car, and they are not allowed to do that.”


Berlinn and MADD co-founder Michelle Leopold conceived their billboard last month after San Francisco Mayor London Breed went to Europe for a 10-day trip to promote tourism to the city. Pete Thompson for NY Post


Because it’s “harder for the police to arrest anyone,” fewer addicted individuals are receiving treatment, Berlinn says. The San Francisco Police Department declined comment.

The MADD moms conceived their billboard last month after Breed went to Europe for a 10-day trip to promote tourism.

“When the mayor went to Europe to ask tourists to come we felt… how can you bring tourists into this environment?” said McDonald. “It isn’t safe.”

Some San Francisco businesses contend the billboard could hurt the local hospitality industry. Joe D’Alessandro, president and CEO of San Francisco Travel, wrote a letter to the MADD Moms agreeing with their aims but taking issue with their billboard — and says he hasn’t received a reply.


Along with co-founder Leopold, Berlinn and McDonald have raised $25,000 — their own funds combined with donations from 50 individuals — to erect the billboard. Pete Thompson for NY Post


“This campaign . . . targets an industry that has nothing to do with the problem on the streets,” said D’Alessandro. “I have never seen, in my 17 years in San Francisco, any open-air drug market. I’m not saying it isn’t there, but it’s not as common as the media portrays.”

“He’s the one who went with Mayor Breed to Europe,” said McDonald, who works as an administrative assistant, adding that MADD is “looking to take these ads international if something doesn’t change.”

Berlinn adds that addicts like her son are human beings who need compassion and help. She first decided to become an activist, founding Stop Fentanyl Deaths in the spring of 2021 and then MADD later that summer, after she saw a Facebook post by an acquaintance who was “saying horrible things about addicts.”


Berlinn says she’s inspired by her son Corey to speak to the homeless about drug addictions. Jacqui Berlinn


When she looked more closely at the post, she saw that the picture of an addicted man on the street was Corey.

“I looked closer and realized it was a picture of my son,” Berlinn recalled, choking up on the phone. “I wrote, ‘That’s my son.’ After that, people [writing the comments] were kinder. It humanized him [in their eyes], I guess.

“That was when I realized I needed to speak up for the homeless, the addicted, and the mentally ill, as Corey would stick up for the underdog.

“They have families who love them. I realized it was important to step up.”

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