Kathleen Marie

HERE'S THE DEAL: People are using drugs in this city, despite decades of law enforcement’s best efforts.

That fight has landed thousands of people in jail and prison—far too many of them people of color. It’s created hardships for Portlanders who need jobs and a place to stay, but find that a criminal record has closed the door to those things. It’s led to tensions between police and communities of color that are playing out—vividly, tragically—every day around the country.

What it hasn’t done is stopped drug use, in this city or anywhere else. So for the first time, Portland law enforcement is on the verge of a fairly novel change in the way it treats that drug use.

It’s going to accept it.

In coming months, Portland’s set to become the latest city to experiment with an innovative strategy called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) aimed at easing legal consequences for drug users.

Pioneered in Seattle in 2011, LEAD gives cops new leeway when they come across someone holding small amounts of meth, cocaine, or heroin. Rather than booking that person into jail, or turning a blind eye, police in LEAD cities can opt to get them help, ushering offenders to social services workers who can offer resources like job placement, counseling, and housing—all without a criminal charge ever being filed.

“We’re going to try to work with you,” says Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill, who’s embraced LEAD in recent months and helped shepherd it forward in Multnomah County. “There’s an increased tolerance and just this awareness: People who are addicted to these substances are going to relapse.”

The concept is part of a “harm reduction” movement playing out across the country. Rather than penalizing and punishing people into quitting drugs—which doesn’t work—programs like LEAD accept that people are using, but seek to minimize fallout from that use (jail crowding, overdoses, street crime).

Notably, the program that the prosecutor, police chief, and a host of other instrumental local officials are lining up behind would be the first formal harm reduction-style policy for the city’s justice system. A draft policy memo [PDF] on the effort specifically notes that participants “will not be penalized or denied services if they do not achieve abstinence.”

“A lot of it is a little bit counterintuitive to people,” says Andy Ko, executive director of the Partnership for Safety and Justice, which has been arguing for a LEAD-style program in Portland since 2014. “You can’t just say to someone, 'You will stop using drugs.’ Addiction isn’t like that. Recovery from addiction isn’t like that.”

Ko was working for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington when LEAD got its start in Seattle, so he’s biased. But independent research behind that program speaks for itself.

Studies by researchers at the University of Washington suggest that people who participated in the LEAD program were 60 percent less likely to be arrested in the six months after enrolling, and had about the same lowered odds long term. It showed that participants—82 percent of whom were homeless—were far more likely to obtain housing after a LEAD referral. And in Seattle, folks who entered the program cost the criminal justice system a lot less than people who didn’t.

In Portland, a central focus for Underhill and others is reducing the embarrassing racial disparity in arrests that plagues the county. A report issued earlier this year by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation found that, overall, black people are six times more likely than whites to be incarcerated in Multnomah County.

“There is an extremely high disproportionate number of people of color, men of color, being arrested for drug-related offenses,” Underhill says. “Add to that that many of these offenses are felonies. What can we do to do better?”

Multnomah County’s program, as laid out in a June 22 memo from Underhill’s office, would be centered on two parts of the city: “high pedestrian areas” that encompass the whole of downtown (including Old Town) and the Lloyd District, where a lot of drug activity has historically been centered.

Once underway, police who arrest people with fewer than 10 grams of cocaine or meth, and fewer than five grams of heroin, would have the option of bringing them to social services workers to be screened for LEAD, rather than to jail. Participation in the program is completely voluntary, but there’s a big upside: Once a person is accepted, potential criminal charges disappear. No need to set foot in a courthouse.

Referrals wouldn’t just be contingent on arrest, either. Cops could also point someone to LEAD if they think he or she is “at high risk of arrest in the future” for eligible drug offenses.

“Even in situations where a police officer has probable cause to make an arrest but does not, the officer may still refer the person to a LEAD caseworker,” the memo says.

The model, then, places a lot of importance on police buy-in. That could have proven problematic given recent wholesale changes in leadership at the Portland Police Bureau, but new Police Chief Mike Marshman tells the Mercury he’s “fully supportive” of the idea.

“We’ll move forward,” Marshman says.

Officials have been seriously eyeing a program like this for months, but one effort died in May, when city commissioners shot down Mayor Charlie Hales’ proposal for a business tax hike. Hales wanted to use some of the tax money for a program he called HEART (short for Homeless Engagement Alternatives, Resources, and Treatment), which took the LEAD model, but folded in crimes associated with homelessness, like drinking in public, public urination, and illegal camping.

That approach was aimed at pushing homeless Portlanders toward services, but it raised concerns from both officials and advocates of the LEAD concept.

“It seemed we were going in the wrong direction—that we were using the criminal justice system to address homelessness” says Ko.

With Hales’ money out of the picture, the effort fell to Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, who put $800,000 from her own budget toward getting LEAD up and running. Combined with roughly $200,000 in grant money, the program has $1 million to play with during a yearlong pilot period. That money will largely go toward paying for social services for up to 300 people at a time, Underhill says.

Advocates say the program should still have a big impact on the city’s homeless. Remember: The vast majority of those who’ve been referred through Seattle’s nearly identical program are on the streets.

“Folks that LEAD works with are people who are spectacularly marginalized and disenfranchised,” says Kris Nyrop, who advocates LEAD around the country through his work with the Seattle-based Public Defender Association. “A lot of our folks want treatment and they wouldn’t have the foggiest idea how to get treatment. Some folks are veterans eligible for [federal] benefits but they don’t know how.”

Plenty of cities around the country are looking into LEAD—Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Albany, New York recently launched their own programs—but Portland, with the universal buy-in of influential officials, is moving far faster than most. If the city gets a pilot up and running later this year, as planned, it’ll be the second-largest city in the country to do so, after Seattle.

And if it’s done well, advocates like Nyrop say it can go a long way toward repairing the fragile or toxic relationships cops have with some communities.

“People say, 'Whenever I saw officer so-and-so, I would hide. Now I go up and talk to him or her,’” Nyrop says. “If the only tool a police officer has is arrest, then that’s the tool they’re going to use. LEAD gives them a concrete, other thing that they can do.”