‘Enough,’ the Liberal Leadership of Portland Cries as City Council Prepares To Roll Back Liberal Drug Laws

Reeling from the fentanyl crisis and a deadly culture of public drug use, the opioid oasis in Oregon is moving to make it illegal to consume drugs on public property.

Nathan Howard/Getty Images
Mayor Ted Wheeler of Portland at City Hall on August 30, 2020 at Portland, Oregon. Nathan Howard/Getty Images

Portland’s city council is expected to advance today a proposal to criminalize public drug consumption, as the city struggles to cope with record overdose deaths, a homelessness crisis, and downtown streets reeking of fentanyl smoke.

The move, coming three years after the Oregon city decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs, is supported by the Democratic mayor, Ted Wheeler, and the city commissioner for public safety, Rene Gonzalez. The proposal would amend city ordinance to make it illegal to consume drugs on public property. 

Persons convicted of violating the ordinance could face a fine of up to $500 or up to six months in jail, though a press release from the mayor’s office says it will “support alternatives to criminal punishment whenever practical.” Public alcohol consumption is already prohibited at Portland, but smoking fentanyl or methamphetamine on the street is not.

Mayor Wheeler advanced a similar proposal to crack down on public drug use in June but then quickly backtracked, realizing that a 1971 state law bars cities from penalizing the consumption of other substances. The new proposal adds language to take this into account, saying it will go into effect “upon authorization by the Oregon legislature or court action.”

“We need to send a message that Portland is no longer a place to camp out and do hard drugs on the streets,” Mr. Gonzalez tells the Sun. “But we need the state legislature to untie our hands.”

The proposal notes that between 2019 and 2022 Oregon experienced a doubling in overdose deaths and that “public consumption of these perilous drugs has subjected the general public to unnecessary risks through exposure to fumes resulting from smoking dangerous mixtures of drugs and other substances, as well as the presence of fentanyl-contaminated drug paraphernalia in public areas.”

“Addressing the public health crisis unfolding on our streets requires all of us working together to make the kind of systemic change our city needs,” Mr. Wheeler said in a statement.

This move comes three years after Oregonians passed Ballot Measure 110, which decriminalized possession of small amounts of all drugs, including heroin, methamphetamine, and fentanyl. The measure also set aside hundreds of millions of dollars wafting in from tax revenue on marijuana.

That was to build substance abuse treatment and harm reduction infrastructure — essentially to transfer the problem of drug addiction to the public health system from the criminal justice realm. The Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit that was instrumental in the measure’s passing, once called it “the biggest blow to the war on drugs to date.”

Three years later, though, Portland is reeling from a drug-fueled homelessness crisis, widespread public drug consumption, and one of the sharpest increases in overdose death rates in the nation. Oregon now has one of the highest rates of adult substance use disorder. Measure 110 has been plagued by administrative problems and building treatment facilities has been slow.

“When you’re in downtown Portland it’s impossible not to smell the fentanyl. It’s everywhere,” a homeless outreach liaison at Portland, Kevin Dahlgren, tells the Sun. “Portlanders are fed up. Even some of the most liberal ones — they won’t say it publicly — but they’ve been voting differently. We want our city back.”

More than 60 percent of Oregon voters, according to a survey in April, say Measure 110 has made homelessness, drug addiction, and crime worse. More than 60 percent say they want criminal penalties for possession brought back, though they still support the funding mechanisms for treatment.

Mr. Wheeler and the city council are hearing the message. “The status quo is not a compassionate response,” the mayor said in a video statement on the city’s homelessness crisis. “While I support the intent of Measure 110, the funding has been extremely slow to be deployed and the state’s drug treatment infrastructure continues to fail despite efforts of many people in the treatment community. Making matters worse, two relatively new cheap and widely available synthetic drugs are wreaking havoc in Portland and all across the country.”

The two synthetic drugs Mr. Wheeler refers to are P2P meth and fentanyl. Supporters of Measure 110 say the rise in overdose deaths has more to do with fentanyl taking over the opioid supply than it does decriminalization. Fentanyl and Covid policies caused overdose deaths to spike nationwide. They also say it will take time for the treatment infrastructure to be built and for users to take advantage of it.  

“There is no evidence to suggest decriminalization of possession of small amounts of drugs under Measure 110 has impacted overdose death rates in Oregon,” the Drug Policy Alliance says. The Drug Policy Alliance did not immediately respond to the Sun’s request for comment. 

“It was a perfect storm. I don’t think anybody could have predicted fentanyl,” Mr. Dahlgren says. Yet he says proponents of Measure 110 are so caught up in the “social justice” ideology of harm reduction that the notion of “bodily autonomy” — that people have the right to use drugs — has taken precedence over providing help to those struggling on the street.

“Spending all our time and resources prosecuting a person who’s been using publicly seems like a major waste of resources, but there also has to be consequences,” Mr. Dahlgren says. “It’s not a victimless crime if you’re using in front of kids … and you’re seeing all the other bad behavior connected to fentanyl use.”

The proposal to criminalize public drug use is expected to pass the five-person, all-Democratic Portland city council. It is not a repeal of Measure 110. Yet it signals a turning point, when an overwhelmingly Democratic city is saying “enough.” They don’t want to criminalize addiction, but they want to reduce the public harms that open drug use causes.

“We plan on following up Wednesday’s vote with a concerted public campaign on this critical issue in the upcoming short session. The future of our city’s livability literally depends upon it.” Mr. Gonzalez says.

The New York Sun

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