Citing a new Oregon law stiffening penalties for fentanyl possession, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler is abandoning a proposed ordinance that would have criminalized public drug use.

Last week, Wheeler announced he would ask the Portland City Council to vote on an amendment to city code that would prohibit consumption of a controlled substance on public streets and sidewalks. City code already prohibits consuming alcohol in public spaces, outside of bars and designated dining and event areas. 

The mayor cited “Portland’s growing substance abuse problems” and overdose deaths, which he said proliferated in the wake of Measure 110, which decriminalized personal possession of illicit drugs.

But on Tuesday, Wheeler said the Oregon Legislature’s recent passage of House Bill 2645, which increases the penalties for possessing certain amounts of fentanyl, making it a misdemeanor crime statewide, would be enough to address the issues.

“In consultation with local law enforcement and our City Attorney, we believe that HB 2645 addresses our primary concerns about the public health crisis unfolding on our streets, and it restores necessary law enforcement tools that were envisioned in my own ordinance,” Wheeler stated in a news release.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler at a City Council meeting in May.
Wheeler has backed off a proposal to criminalize consumption of
controlled substances in public spaces. Courtney vaughn

Passed by Oregon voters in 2020, Measure 110 sought to decriminalize addiction by allowing someone caught with a small amount of hard drugs a chance at rehab instead of jail. Under the law, a person could have a civil citation waived if they reached out for drug treatment assessment.

Since the measure’s implementation in 2021, the state has grappled with an explosion of fentanyl use and overdose deaths. Local political leaders like Wheeler and City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez blame Measure 110, saying it left little to no deterrent for using highly addictive and deadly synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Wheeler’s office cited “thousands” of civil citations issued across Oregon for drug possession since 2021, but only 189 treatment assessments. The mayor’s office stopped short of noting that data is preliminary, and only captures a three-month period in 2022, from July to September. 

Even if Wheeler’s proposed ordinance went into effect, it’s unlikely it would have been enforced heavily, if at all. 

The city's police force is notably understaffed and the state has a widely publicized shortage of public defenders. What's more, Oregon limits cities’ ability to create laws regulating public drug use. Wheeler said he was “willing to take that fight to the courts, if necessary.”

Additionally, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the local jail, noted it won’t reserve jail beds for offenders whose only crime is a city citation. 

“Importantly, neither the City nor the [Portland Police Bureau] control whether the Sheriff will allow officers to arrest offenders or how courts could impose sentences under this ordinance,” the mayor noted in a statement defending his ordinance last week, saying the city supports “finding alternatives to criminal punishment” to help people get substance abuse treatment. “We must acknowledge that the City and PPB do not currently have the resources to address every instance of drug use in public spaces, but we have to start somewhere.”

The now defunct proposal was the latest in a string of recent moves by the Portland City Council to remove visible homelessness and drug use from Portland’s streets. Earlier this month, the council approved a ban on daytime camping and sleeping in many public spaces, noting violators would first face warnings, then the possibility of fines or jail time. Some of the city’s moves operate in the margins of legality when it comes to federal laws regulating homelessness and state laws regulating the criminalization of controlled substances.

The mayor said enforcing the new state law aimed at cracking down on fentanyl use will “take time and patience” as the city works to bolster staffing within the Portland Police Bureau.